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Power and Persuasion

Power and Persuasion

By Clive Pearson

Some years ago I supervised a doctoral thesis on what the writer called the ethics of persuasion. It was a study of the performance of power in the Uniting Church. There were a number of case studies employed to set the scene: they had do with mandatory sentencing, the possible introduction of the office of bishop, the possibility of ceasing to ordain women and the debate over sexual orientation and ordination.

This thesis assumed the consensus pattern of decision making and the interconciliar polity of the Uniting Church. It repeated the rhetoric of the church not being hierarchical and rather flat in its leadership. It took for granted the idea that this is a church which is open to the Spirit and through its procedures, properly observed, relies upon a pneumatic consensus. What is meant by that term is the decision on what to do, what is reckoned to be right and appropriate, is arrived at through a fair hearing and an opening to the promptings of the Spirit. In the language of a past era this line of approach was regarded as the consensus fidelium – the consensus of the faithful.

In a manner of speaking we could say this model is the theological ideal which lies behind and within the Uniting Church. In terms of power it relies more obviously upon good process, consistent and coherent process, and is relatively open-ended. Rather than an authoritative leader, rather than personality or charisma, it is indebted to codes of ethics, resolutions, minutes, committees, guidelines, A Manual for Meetings.

Its handbooks are much more likely to use the subjunctive – that is, words like may and might – rather than shall and must. Its Code of Ethics has a dedicated section on relationships of power: it is ostensibly designed to prevent the misuse of such and bind the practice of power to justice and to accountability. It is the kind of polity and governance which, of necessity, must privilege the language of inclusion and participation. There is a presupposition of difference leading, no doubt, towards a desired goal of reconciliation and consensus. The vary designation uniting presupposes a process, a journey, a way.

For a proper working of a pneumatic consensus the process needs to be respected and rightly observed, for the Spirit has a particular nature and task. It is, of course, reckoned to be a spirit of wisdom and truth. According to Andre Munzinger the New Testament witness is concerned with a discerning of the Spirit.[1] Once again, within the polity of the Uniting Church, the language is very frequently used – most notably with respect to a period of discernment. The function of the Spirit is to elicit within the believer the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord – that is, a confession of power and authority – and to do so in a manner which renews the heart and mind. Such a rendering of the Spirit lies behind regulatory responsibilities for key officers within the church to preserve the ‘good name’ of the Church – the word church here coming from the Greek, kyriarchos, via he German kirche into English, meaning ‘belonging to the Lord’.

What we have here is not a democracy; it is a pneumatocracy. It relies upon the Spirit which can, of course, blow where it wills and is inclined to disperse power. That is the ideal. That is how this church conceives itself to be – but in practice this is not what always happens. In a rather obscured and hidden line in A Manual for Meetings there is reference to the possibility of procedures coming under the sway of a handful and a pseudo-consensus emerges. Mistakes are made.

The writer of this thesis devised a grid to test the ethics of persuasion and devices of conformity in the Uniting Church and thereby its practice of power. It was quite a complex device and ran the very real risk of leaving the whole thesis gridlocked. The conclusion arrived at was that in practice a range of persuasive and potentially manipulative tools were used to create the desired effect. It was clearly evident that some offices in the life of the church exercised great power; there were hidden forms of patronage at work where particular members of the church of a specific theological ilk or outlook were privileged in terms of membership of committees; there was evident tokenism in terms of representation, especially with regards to ethnicity; there are questions surrounding what is actually happening in terms of polity and pneumatic consensus when you show a blue card, you are clearly in a minority, and, then in order to proceed, you are asked that fateful question: ‘have you been “heard”’? what does being heard actually mean and signify? What job is it doing? Is it testing whether more work needs to be done in order to ensure consensus is arrived at? Or, is it effectively been used to determine the vote?

This thesis was written ten years ago. In a situation of the relative decline of the institution fresh questions may have been asked – the most significant of which would have to do with the power of finance and budgets. What happens through a lens of power when there is a decline in capacity – by which I mean congregations, for instance, no longer have some of the requisite skills and personnel to perform the tasks once deemed to be necessary and conventional and, within a particular frame of reference, thus become disempowered.

This thesis was on the ethics of persuasion within the church; it was effectively a study on the use and misuse of power within the church – though that kind of language was not explicitly used. Its completion happened just before the publication of a couple of significant monographs: Stephen Sykes’ Power and Christian Theology and Daniel Migliore’s God of Power and the Power of Gods.[2]

Sykes is concerned with mapping what he sees as the ambiguity of the biblical legacy to do with power. There are diverging tendencies at work which play themselves out in three different fields: the first has to do with how the language of power is ascribed to God. Examples of such come at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory’, again in Revelation (5:12) ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, and honour and glory, and blessing’. There is the standard reference in the Creeds to God ‘the father Almighty’.[3]

That is one field: the second field has to do with the obvious involvement of the church within the power plays at work within culture. By tradition that has been most obvious during the era of Christendom when Kings and Queens were anointed, seemingly by divine right, and a culture was seemingly Christian on the basis of whether its ruler had accepted the faith of the church and organised and structured itself accordingly. It is arguably the case we are now bearing witness to the relative demise of that power and there is a sense in which the church is being called at times to give an account of its exercise of power through episodes of when that expression of power has been misused, abused.

The third and final field has to do with what this thesis on the ethics of persuasion was concerned about. How is power manifested within the life of the church? How is it distributed? How is it exercised? Sykes is under no illusion for he refers to the perennial problem of the struggles for power within the life of the church. In terms of its practice the body of Christ is not unlike other organisations where power plays are at work and power can be used for good and for ill. Migliore is inclined to follow a similar pattern.[4]

Sykes is well aware of the need to define first what we mean by power. Consider how you would do that. The dilemma is that we use the word power in a great variety of ways. It can designate both a power and a thing: Levon is a powerful person, but then he comes up against the power of the state. The word can refer to a quality or property, such as an ability to do something or a faculty of the body or mind. Here it can refer to a person possessing the necessary gifts to get things done – or maybe having the adequate physical strength to accomplish what a supposedly weaker person could not do.

Power can refer to the ability or the right to control others in a commanding way – and hence it can become associated with dominion, rule, government, domination, control, influence, authority. It can easily then acquire a negative connotation. We can talk about people being ‘power hungry’ or such and such a person is very good at playing power games. Did you notice that Sef was power dressing? Etc. We can talk about the world of power politics.

It is not uncommon to refer to power and its use through its negative. We feel powerless when we have no way of exerting any influence upon a situation. Such a feeling is not usually regarded as desirable. Sometimes institutions can manipulate the use of power to thier own ends; sometimes the seemingly strong can exercise power through brute force over and against others. There is then a negative end to the spectrum of how we use the language of power; there is reason to be wary but that does not exhaust its application.

Migliore does not set out self-consciously to give a definition of power in quite the same way. His discussion on power and powerlessness arises out of everyday experience. Experiences of both power and weakness, and along with them the question of God, are woven into the fabric of life. Every human being, indeed every living creature, possesses and exercises power to some degree. We exercise power in everything we do, even in the smallest step we take. To be human is to have some power, to be able to do something, to reach a goal, to make a difference in the world. There is no life where there is no power. Possession and the exercise of power is a necessity of life.[5]

For Migliore to be human is also to experience the limits of our power. It is to become aware of our dependence on persons and powers beyond ourselves. We are enmeshed in and surrounded by multiple, interacting and often conflicting powers at work in every sphere of human life. Sometimes we are enriched by the power of others; at times we are overwhelmed by the way in which others and impersonal forces within society render us powerless and do so in ways which the Christian faith has usually described as being sinful.

Migliore notes that the Bible is very much aware of the reality of the vast impersonal power networks in which life is lived. Its calls these expressions of power the ‘principalities and powers’ of this world. Within the tradition these powers have been understood as supernatural beings, like angels and demons, but they can also be viewed as powerful forces and structures of our common human life – nations, institutions, systems of law and order, forms of culture. Through a mix of theology and Jung’s analytical psychology such powers can be seen as the inner spirit or voice within an institution or within ourselves. They are the ‘rulers’, ‘authorities’ ‘powers’ of this world (Romans 8:38-39; Ephesians 3:10; 6:12).[6]

The word power is far from straightforward. In terms of human knowledge it can be found in a number of different disciplines: physics, sociology, politics, mathematics, for instance. It can be both a verb and a noun. We can talk about the balance of power, power tools, nuclear powers and superpowers, power rangers and power brokers

Both Sykes and Migliore set out to talk about power from a Christian perspective that is established in the biblical witness and theological tradition. Both are aware of a tension in that inherited legacy that we receive. We talk about the ‘power of God’, Luke 24:49 refers to ‘power from on high’, Romans gave us ‘the powers that be’. Jesus is described as being ‘a prophet mighty in deed and word; He is born of the virgin Mary whom ‘the power of the Most High’ overshadowed; He is filed with the power of the Spirit’; with ‘authority and power’ he casts out evil spirits; on performing a miracle he notices that power has gone out of him. Paul will speak of the gospel as the ‘power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’.

Yes, there are demonic powers ranged against Jesus and the kingdom; there are a whole series of passages in the New Testament letters which speak of ‘principalities and powers’. Ephesians refers to the Christian life as the struggle against ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’. Over and against this threatening use of the language of power the tradition of faith will use words like the power, almightiness, omnipotence of God. And yet there is a remarkable irony: the power of God has, in Christian theology, been related to crucifixion and humility.

So where does this word power come from? The English word comes from the French ‘pouvoir’. It is used to translate two Greek words in the New Testament, exousia (which literally means, out of being) and dunamis (from which we get dynamic). Sykes notes that exousia can refer to potential energy which then makes itself in dunamis or acts of power. Latin likewise has two words: virtus (which possesses a sense of strength) and potestas. That Latin word is related to a verb meaning ‘to be able’.[7]

Sometimes the way in which these words were translated the word power was not used. For example, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel, he goes to Capernaum. He is said to teach, unlike the scribes, with exousia which is often translated in terms of authority rather than power. It may well be that we like the word authority more than power; it seems more benign. And yet the Latin Bible never used its own word for authority, auctoritas which was usually associated with weight advice and the capacity to influence opinion. It was inclined to convey advice and warning; parents had auctoritas over their children.

There has been a long discussion over the relationship between authority and power. Suffice it to say power has often been defined in terms of imposing one’s will, even against opposition, for the sake of some intended effect in the future. It can be used by organisations to achieve an end purpose and can function in an almost invisible sort of way, like money with an economy. Sykes himself settles for a definition of power as the capacity to make a difference in the world.[8] He is not naïve in this respect. He argues that power attracts a range of other words like force and authority; it lends itself to manipulation, persuasion and influence.[9]

The biblical and creedal traditions to do with power are ambiguous. The Hebrew Bible abounds in references to might and power where God is described in terms of being El Shaddai, the mighty one, jealous, liable to withhold the power of restoration and at the same deliver the elect into the power of others. The Creeds refer to God the Father, Almighty. The theological tradition is well accustomed to assigning attributes to God like omnipotence. Migliore especially is clear: the Christian faith bears witness to a God of power. And this can be a matter of concern for good reason.

The feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, has said that our understandings, our models of God function. They are not simple descriptions. They have downstream consequences. It matters what kind of God we believe in – for that will then affect how we envisage our being made in the image of God. Douglas John Hall probes a bit further. Writing in his Professing the Faith he placed a question mark after the Almighty in a chapter exploring the character of God. He had been struck by how often the Christian faith had opted for attributes of power and done so in a way which seemed to be insufficiently nuanced. The invocation of power was one of might, dominion, strength. Writing in the wake of 9/11 Hall posed the awkward question as to how Christian representations of God and Christ of power had led a theology of glory which justified triumphalism, the conquest of others and their humiliation. To what extent had such a reading of the Christian faith incited the rise of Muslim extremism? Hall argued that imbalances in our espoused theologies eventually make themselves felt in the ordinary practice of discipleship. Hall was arguing the case for a theology of the cross which must necessarily lead to a different rendering of power.

Both Migliore and Sykes seek to set out a pattern, a model at this point that interprets the diverse biblical strands. Migliore looks to the biblical traditions to do with power and organises them in the following way: the Hebrew tradition revealed the power of God in and through the exodus where there is the surprising liberation of the poor and the oppressed; this God expresses power in and by means of a covenant; it is relational and relies on faithfulness; the power of this God is made known through the demand for justice and is marked by a prophetic steadfast capacity for mercy. It is also grounded in the idea of promise: the life-giving power of God is ‘experienced both as a reality and a promise’ that is liberative and reconciling. The focus then falls on the power of Jesus’ ministry and the Easter events.[10]

Jesus of Nazareth attracts a great deal of discussion surrounding the nature of power. His proclamation of the gospel is itself an expression of such. From the outset of his ministry he announces the inbreaking of the kingdom of God as an alternative reality. It is an inbreaking which is accompanied by acts of forgiveness and repentance. This gospel is one which is manifested through Jesus’ own actions and deeds where he eschews the normal expectations of wealth, high office and weaponry customarily associated with power. The temptation narratives set an agenda for his public ministry which runs contrary to a demonic and self-serving reading of power. His teaching, his healings and his prophetic disposition towards the Sabbath lead into questions as to ‘by what authority’ does he act in this manner. His deeds and words bring him into collision with the religious and political leaders of the day.[11] His disciples are informed that they cannot lord power over others like the Gentiles do. The way to positions of honour and power is through service.

Even the passion narrative itself is an expression of power. It seems so unlikely. Jesus is handed over, betrayed, into the hands of the Jerusalem elite who have been conspiring for his death and the Roman governor who has the power to effect that sentence. Jesus is scourged, mocked, humiliated, seemingly put to shame and subject to taunts which suggest that he would save himself from this plight, if indeed he is the Son of God. There is power, nevertheless, in his three-fold prediction of what transpired and the maintaining of silence in the face of interrogation. There is an alternative power at work in his submission to the will of God in the garden of Gethsemane. The passion narrative bears witness to an alternative way of power which lies within the providence of God and is like a secret.

The distinctively Christian understanding of power lies inside a paradox. The narrative of the crucifixion is core. It is a strange claim: Paul rightly recognized that ‘Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks’. It is nevertheless the case that the Christ of the cross is both the power and wisdom of God. This veritable reverse of understanding is made plain in the passion narrative itself: Pilate asks Jesus if he is ‘the king of the Jews’; in John’s gospel Pilate asks Jesus if he does not realize that he has the power to crucify him. Jesus, of course, replies in this instance: ‘You have no power over me unless it had been given to me’. There is an eschatological reversal in the making here. Jesus will be crucified under the inscription that he is the king of the Jews: and, yet in due time, those who now exercise power will in due time ‘see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power’. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world – if it were his followers would have fought to keep him from being handed over.

The resurrection, of course, is a vindication of Christ. For the apostle Paul Jesus becomes the risen Christ and the Son of God through the power of God raising him from the dead. That which has been humiliated and handed over into the power of others has been justified by God. The ways and understanding of power have been turned upside down. The Philippians hymn which bids us to imitate Christ becomes the exemplar: only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, and became obedient, even unto death.

For Migliore and Sykes the Christian understanding of power is to be conceived in terms of the power of God who is the creator, redeemer and sustainer of life.[12] It is a rendering of power which is made most plain in the ministry, teaching, dying and rising of Christ. Whenever we seek to exercise power, then it is never power in the abstract: it is not the power of strong political leaders, those who wield influence through their acumen in industry, mining, banking. For the Christian faith it must be interpreted in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is that particular.

So let us turn to the church. There is much talk these days of emerging churches, missional churches; there is much talk of leadership, though Jesus himself was never described as such. The Greek word for leader is not to be found in the New Testament at all. It is simply not there. The classical description of the church is that it is called to be the body of Christ. That is the most recurring image; it is the dominant model. It is indicating that what happens in the life of this community should be informed at its deepest level by the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. That is its core statement of power.

The thesis which I supervised some years ago made extensive use of the Basis of Union. It did so in order to evaluate the ethics of persuasion within this particular church. There is little alternative if we are to be true to what we are called to be. The core claim of the Basis of Union with regards the church is that it is Christ who constitutes, rules and renews the church. In theological terms it is not a committee; it is not a particular individual; it is not even a specific office bearer who possesses a duly processed contract or terms of placement which authorizes them to do this, that and next thing. That authority is always derivative. It is secondary and always accountable to the Christ who constitutes, rules and renews the church.

And here is an awkwardness. Both Sykes and Migliore would not want to say that the power of the church lies in its structural efficiency, its economic well being, its numerical strength and growth, its slick organisational achievement. These things have their place and their importance but they are not primary. The Basis of Union calls upon us to discern Christ’s own strange way of renewing the church and bids us share in his sufferings for such. That is where the Christian understanding of power lies.

In terms of the use of power, then, in the church there is a tension. Jesus quite clearly distances the way in which his followers should exercise power from the way in which the Gentiles do. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave’. In terms of power the example is set by Jesus, the one whom we are called to follow and imitate: ‘Just as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve’.

There is a salutary reminder here. For much of its distinctive patterns of organisation and leadership the church is indebted to a secular society. Sykes especially makes that point clear. There is a certainly inevitability about this, of course. The church is called to be the body of Christ but exists in this world, this time, this place, prior to the parousia, the coming again of Christ. It may be constituted by Christ but it is made up of forgiven sinners, to use Luther’s language. Its organisation and shape, its processes owe much to the spirit and norms of the ages in which it came into being. And it bears the marks of its Christendom past when the church itself was an institution of hierarchical and dominant power within western culture; its shape and its concern for ‘doing’ church – often at the expense of its ‘being’ church – also means it sufficiently porous to be influenced / coloured by whatever happens to be the latest management theory and how power might be exercised.

And yet there’s the rub. The Uniting Church insists on an accountable use of power; it needs to be that transparent and not hidden in subterfuge. It must necessarily look to the pattern of Christ – and there we find an exemplary power which is designed to be one of service, hospitality, merciful and just. These are not meant to be just words on paper. The gospel of Matthew will speak of the wise man who heads and does the words of Christ; it will have Jesus say ‘go and do likewise’. There is a foil then, a marker, a test, a line by which the practice of power can be evaluated and discerned for its Christian efficacy.

In terms of what to expect in the Uniting Church that thesis of ethics of persuasion was on the right track. It recognized that power in this church is exercised primarily through personalities and office. We are not an episcopal church in an hierarchical personal sense. The word episcopal comes from the Greek meaning an overseer. That thesis was concerned with the interconciliar nature of our polity and how power is mediated through councils, committees whose processes need to be followed truly, accurately, for the sake of the discerning of the Spirit. Our power, theoretically, lies in a pneumatocracy where in and through the Spirit we seek to confess the Christ who constitutes, rules and renews the church and whose sufferings we are called to share.



[1] Andre Munzinger,

[2] Stephen Sykes, Power and Christian Theology, London and New York, Continuum, 2006: Daniel Migliore, The Power of God and the Gods of Power, Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

[3] Sykes, 1

[4] Migliore, 1-16.

[5] Migliore, 1-3.

[6] Migliore, 37-58.

[7] Sykes, 3-4.

[8] Sykes, 7.

[9] Sykes, 9.

[10] Migliore, 37-58.

[11] Migliore, 49.

[12] Sykes, 22-23.