As a father of three lovely daughters, I have made my fair share of parenting mistakes. I remember occasions when they were little and I tried to get them to do something they refused to do. This battle of wills often ended up with me putting the proverbial foot down, resulting in tears and anger. Other times, I acted wiser and gave them choices. Instead of “my way or the highway,” I offered two choices that I could live with. Sometimes the choices were pretty heavily stacked in my favor. But overall, this method tended to resolve conflict peaceably. The difference was that my daughters had some power to choose the outcome.
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.
In his book The Beautiful Risk, James Olthuis uses the terms power-over and power-with to describe two basic forms of exercising power. My parenting experience illustrates those two forms of power, albeit imperfectly. When I tried to force my children to do things my way against their wills, I was engaging in power-over. Power-over is primarily about control and manipulation.
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.
If God’s own primary use of power with us is power-with, then how about us? How have we exercised power in the church and in the world? Are our church structures and rules designed to control people or to empower them? Are our sermons geared for manipulating parishioners or equipping them? Are our outreach ministries primarily about doing things to and for people or aimed at ministering alongside people?
This new year, I encourage us to strive for power-with in all our relationships with family and friends, with our online and in-person neighbors. Let us seek to empower rather than to be powerful.