In his 1633 poem, “The Bag,” George Herbert depicted the Incarnation as a descent from almighty majesty to naked vulnerability:
The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glorie,
Reserv’d to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.
This descent, which Paul described as an emptying (Greek, kenosis) in Philippians 2:7, presents profound metaphysical challenges to theologians. After all, how does God empty himself? It presents more practical problems to Christians, however, who are called to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (2:5). This is doubly true of Christian leaders, for how does one lead as a servant?
To the extent we have not felt the tension between a leader’s power and a servant’s vulnerability, we have not yet developed a Christlike mindset.
The intersection of power and vulnerability is the theme of Diane Langberg’s excellent new book, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church.
A Christian psychologist who cofounded the Global Trauma Recovery Institute at Philadelphia’s Mission Seminary, Langberg serves on the board of Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE), and cochairs the American Bible Society’s Trauma Advisory Council.
Over the past decade, her expertise in trauma and abuse has been sorely needed by many Christian churches and ministries.
For Langberg, the issue is not whether we can eschew power or overcome vulnerability entirely. All people have power to one degree or another. And all people are vulnerable. The issue, then, is how we use power in the face of vulnerability.
Too often, leaders use their powerful positions to abuse the vulnerability of their followers. This abuse always involves deception, and it often creates an abusive culture in the organization the abuser leads.
Langberg offers a depressing catalogue of the forms that abuse can take: physical, verbal, emotional, knowledge- and skill-based, economic, sexual, and even spiritual. Such abuse manifests in various relationships: between men and women, between racial/ethnic majorities and minorities, and between adults and children, among others.
Whatever the form or relationship, the powerful leverage their power to selfish ends, hiding their vulnerabilities even as they prey on the vulnerabilities of others. This is not the way of Jesus.
The antidote to such abuse is a closer following after Christ. “Because Jesus never wavered from choosing love and obedience to the Father as the driving force in his life,” Langberg writes, “he was a threat to both individuals and systems of his day, a holy dissident with a disruptive presence and disruptive words.”
She goes on to say, “This Christ disturbs massive systems and turns the world upside down. We, as his people, are to be like him.”
Christ followers should use their power to help and heal the vulnerable and to call out abuse and injustice.
Langberg believes the American church is passing through a “Valley of Achor” moment. (Achor is Hebrew for “trouble.”) In Joshua 7:26, this name describes the valley where God judged Achan for disobeying His commandment and enriching himself from the destruction of Jericho.
Like Achan, too many Christian leaders have abused their power and brought cultural discredit on Christ’s church.
“This Valley of Trouble is God ordained,” Langberg says, “and in this place, he is calling his people back to himself.” There is no way around this valley. American Christians can only go through it, repenting of their abuse of power and turning again and again to Christ.
Only in this way will God “make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15), for us and for the vulnerable Christ calls us to serve.
Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020).
P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.
P.P.S. This review appears in the November/December 2020 issue of Influence magazine.