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Discipling the Powerful


Let me start with the questions: What is power? Who are the powerful?

Political and social theorist, Steven Lukes, states that “A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests.” In the second edition of his book, Power: A Radical View (2005), a concept map of power illustrates that coercion, force and manipulation are subsets of power, while influence overlaps power. Authority is a subset of influence and also overlaps power. Inducement, encouragement and persuasion are subsets of influence but do not overlap power. Thus, people who are influential or in authority are not always powerful, while those who are powerful may not always be influential or people in authority. Those who are powerful may use coercion, force, influence, manipulation or authority to exercise power but they may not use encouragement, inducement or persuasion.

The Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, the centurion and the Pharisees were people in authority. It appears then that the focus of this week’s topic is not really on people who are powerful but on people in authority, using Lukes’ concept map. On the other hand, using a more traditional definition which can be traced back to the Romans, Hannah Arendt, another political theorist, pointed out that power is the ability “not just to act but to act in concert.” In her book, On Violence (1970), she explains that power is not the property of an individual, but that of a group of individuals who have empowered a particular individual to act in their name. As such, power is consensual and inherent in a political community and does not need justification but legitimacy. She differentiated this from violence which does not have legitimacy but may have justification. Apparently, this could serve as the secular basis for the concept espoused in Romans 13:1-7, which enjoins submission to governing authorities, as they are established by God.

When my father-in-law, then a traveling salesman of farm supplies, was abducted by communist rebels for his failure to pay “tax”, they were prepared to use violence if their demands were not met.  Using Arendt’s definition, the rebels were not powerful, as they had to resort to violence or the threat of it to obtain submission. Lukes’ concept map, on the other hand, would still classify them as powerful, as they utilized coercion and force. The legitimate authority was powerless to rescue my father-in-law without risking his life. This illustrates the case where those in power are illegitimate. 

Do the powerful need discipling?

On a negative perspective, the failure rate of Christ’s encounters with the powerful appears to indicate the futility of such endeavors. Even the positive case of the centurion reinforces the notion that the powerful do not need discipling. Matthew 8:10 indicates that the centurion’s faith was greater than that of anyone in Israel—even greater than that of the disciples. Thus he did not need discipling. Just imagine having so great a faith to amaze even the Son of God!

It appears then that Christ’s encounter with the centurion was more for the benefit of the listeners and onlookers than the centurion. The same thing may be said of his encounters with other powerful men, with the exception of Nicodemus—they were public encounters. Thus, despite apparently failing to hit the intended targets, the fallout achieved a greater coverage, as evidenced by the surge of conversions at the birth of the early church.

The rebels during Christ’s time were the Zealots, who have been called the world’s first terrorists. In the same way, rebel groups in many countries today are blacklisted as terrorist organizations. The historian Josephus attributes the Zealot origin to the revolt of Judas the Galilean (mentioned in Acts 5:37) sometime during Christ’s birth. Other skirmishes between the Zealots and the Romans occurred after Christ’s ministry. Although no mention is made of Christ’s encounter with a rebel leader, having Simon the Zealot as one of his disciples indicates the extent of Christ’s outreach to the rebel group. On an extreme note, some authors such as Reimarus (1778), Brandon (1967) and Aslan (2013), have expounded on the premise that Jesus was actually a Zealot.

How should the powerful be reached?

Firstly, it can be noted that public outreach is the least successful in terms of the intended target. The case of the centurion is an exception since, as noted earlier, he was already discipled. Those in power usually never admit their mistakes in public. To accept a new belief is to admit the error of one’s old belief. To accept the light is to admit that one was previously in darkness. A powerful man who does this admits that he is not as powerful as he appears. Many recent events involving world leaders denying their failures of judgment attest to this.

We are not faulting Christ for the choice of venue as obviously, Caiaphas, Herod, or Pilate would never set a private appointment with Christ, unless otherwise, like Nicodemus, they had some prior interest in the kingdom of heaven. However, despite the unsuitability of the venue, Christ still endeavored to reach out to them and not deny them of their chances at attaining eternal life.

This indicates that we should utilize every opportunity to reach the powerful, regardless of the success rate. On the other hand, if provided with the chance to decide on the venue, we should prefer one where the subject is free to decide without pressure from those around him.

Secondly, it can be inferred that those who were receptive to the message recognized that Christ himself was also a person of power. In Matthew 8:9, the centurion explained that he too was a person in authority, implying that he believed that Christ was likewise. If he could command the soldiers under him, he believed that Christ could also command the illness to leave. Similarly, in his opening statement (in John 3:2), Nicodemus addressed Christ as “Rabbi” indicating his acknowledgment that Christ was revered as a person in authority.

This implies that whoever is designated to reach out to the powerful should have the aura of one in authority and be perceived as such.  As Ellen White has pointed out (in MH 213), “Some are especially fitted to work for the higher classes.”

Thirdly, Christ was not intrusive regarding those in power. He did not initiate encounters with them, although public knowledge of his miracles served as an introductory statement. They came to him, or circumstances initiated their encounters with him. Such should be our approach to those in power—never intrusive, simply reactive.

Fourthly, it is apparent that Christ was accepted by those who did not see him as a threat to their sphere of power. Although recognizing that Christ was powerful, the centurion was well aware that they belonged to different spheres. Nicodemus did not see Christ as a threat to his membership in the Sanhedrin. On the other hand, Caiaphas saw Christ as a direct threat to his sphere of power. Herod and Pilate were also pressured by the possible implications of their decisions regarding Christ, and they feared their spheres of power would be greatly reduced.

The initial fear of losing power may significantly prevent the powerful from opening up to the message. An assurance of the status quo after the initial encounter encourages future meetings. The secrecy of Nicodemus’ meeting assured him of the status quo.

It would also be detrimental to use a subordinate to approach the superior. A superior’s warming up to the belief system of his subordinate would indicate that his subordinate knows better than he does, and thus would rub off some of his power. Therefore, an outsider would be in a better position to approach the person in power. Would Philemon have been converted if it was Onesimus who shared with him the message and not Paul?

In conclusion, let me end with the following question:

How should we react when people in power practice or encourage us to practice things that are contrary to our belief system?

The following typical occurrences might better illustrate the question:

A group of instrumentalists, after an international performance, was invited to dine at the home of a rich Adventist businessman. The house was secured by police personnel, indicating the extent of the businessman’s linkage to the local government. In a separate room however, police officers were also served alcoholic drinks while a few were smoking cigarettes.

An Adventist institution was in danger of losing some property due to certain legal complications. In order to get out of the tight spot, the Adventist legal counsel followed the advice of the government representative and had certain church members falsely claim ownership of the property.

When Paul said (in 1 Corinthians 9:22), “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some,” did he justify the above situations? What about his advice, in 1 Thessalonians 5:22, on abstaining from all appearances of evil?

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