Posted by: rogermitchell | November 1, 2010

on power

The New Testament uses two main words for power. An example of both is found in the statement of Jesus to the twelve on their return from their first missionary journey: “behold, I give unto you power [exousia] over all the power [dunamis] of the enemy” (Lk 10:19). Exousia signifies authority, capacity or ability to use power as in “all power [exousia] is given unto me in heaven and on earth” (Mtt 28:18) and “Yours is the kingdom and the power [exousia] and the glory.” Dunamis stands for the application, outworking or manifestation of power, as with “the power [dunamis] of the Lord was with him to heal (Lk 5:17) and “you will receive power [dunamis] when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Before looking at what the authority and power of the kingdom releases and ways in which we might configure it at this time, which I will pick up in the next or subsequent blog, I want to draw attention to two aspects of the meaning and use of power.

The first is that authority [exousia] undergirds the practical expression [dunamis]. So when we encounter material applications of power whether supernatural healings or natural outworkings in economic, military and legal systems it is vitally important to ask what authority is undergirding them. Their existence alone is no justification for welcoming or submitting to them. They are as likely to be detrimental and damaging to humanity as positive and helpful. In this sense the question “by what authority?” that the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus was understandable and necessary. It is crucial to know the nature and motivation of authority before one accepts or tolerates the signs or systems it upholds.

The second issue of power can be seen in the motivation behind the Jewish leaders’ question. For they had already squared the circle of power by identifying the laws and customs of the religious system with their authority and those that undergirded it. When this happens the multitude become trapped by the system. It becomes by nature oppressive because they have no choice as to whether they submit to it or not. There is no external authority to which to refer or by which to critique the applied power of the status quo. This was what had happened to the multitude in Jesus’ day. They were lost and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, not because they were without law, but because the Roman empire and its Jewish puppet leaders left them lost and helpless to critique the power that was making them lost and helpless to act freely. Jesus posed such a threat to the Jewish practice of power in his day because he would not square the circle of power.  His use of the words for power kept exousia and dunamis separate but related. Alhough dunamis is the outworking and exousia the capacity of power, there was no way that his use of the words kept the capacity with God and left the outworking to us. So God does not keep the authority and only leave us with the power to apply his authority. He gives authority to us as well as power (Lk 10:19 above). In this way God in Christ opened the circle of power and his authority was no longer the exclusive authority but a means of evaluating and critiquing the resulting representations and manifestations of power. If I am right this sheds light on the creation story and the prehistory that is indicated there. God could of course have decided to make his authority the one source of power. But he did not. (From this perspective the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stood for the opportunity to choose. This was necessary if his creatures could be in his image and love like him. Satan appears to have made the opposite choice, but more of that in a future post).

To bring this whole discussion to the present day, the problem with western representative democracy is that like the Roman and Jewish system before us, and unlike Jesus and his kingdom, we have squared the circle of authority. Western democracy appears to provide a choice, but actually the vote is only about who will work the system that the accepted authority legitimates. My research suggests [see My Thesis page] that this situation has pertained since the beginning of the history of the ecclesia and its inability to shift away from the Jewish mindset of the day and that it came to a head when the ecclesia and the Roman empire came together in the fourth century. I will take all this further in subsequent blogs, but for the moment I want to underline that anyone that attempts to square the circle by claiming ultimate authority over others, and that their laws must be obeyed whether we like it or not are lawless and ungodly. It is the task of the ecclesia to discover how to live in this system in the opposite spirit. To constantly champion the poor and the marginalised that the system renders helpless. This is why I deliberately look for opportunities to practice civil disobedience from time to time on their behalf and encourage others to do the same. It is why it is especially important that the people of God don’t take the short cut of bringing together exousia and dunamis to justify their leadership gifts or the strategies God gives them for the increase of the kingdom. When we do this we are found to be mixing the gospel with the domination system Jesus came to undo.



  1. Hey Roger I so agree with this. It is extremely helpful to separate the words and define exousia and dunamis and explain them – thank you so much.
    It is indeed the job of the ekklesia to live and observe this ‘system’ in the opposite spirit and to give those caught in the system opportunities to express themselves poetically and prophetically, with the true cry of lament and grief that the empire creates and yet does not permit. I read this recently (in Brueggemann’s Out of Babylon):
    “The prophet (in this case Ezekiel) speaks his words in direct contradiction to the facts on the ground. It is the work of poets to contradict the facts on the ground and invite listeners to embrace an alternative future. It depends upon imagination to summon the community to an alternative reality.” We need to understand the poets.
    I take your point about the poor and needy (and agree), but it’s not only the poor who are trapped in the system…there are many who are ideologically and materially trapped and don’t know how to get out. Cheryl’s recent post on Perspectives articulates one aspect of this but we need more.
    As Martin has said, the facades are swinging open.

  2. Just want to add that your last sentence is SO important to remember…and so difficult to put into practice but practice it we must.

  3. Yeah. Especially I like the concluding thoughts. Sometimes I get the feeling, though, that some aspects of your system leading up to this is more complex and neat than necessery.

    What kind of civil disobedience have you been doing? We have been doing a few actions over here directed against the deportations of immigrants, and we are planning a few other things.

  4. Just the other day I was watching a video clip of some folks in an evangelical movement -well known to many I think – who felt it their duty to ‘take’ the state of Hawaii. They were there praying that every place they stepped would be theirs and so they were stepping on Hawaii and that they expected to be running the place (in Jesus’ name, of course) very soon. And my heart sank. Oh my, I thought. How is it we always end up doing this kind of thing? I’ve known of these leaders and watched them develop and so often in these movements there comes a point where, as in your explanation Roger, the leaders involved bring together exousia and dunamis and create a monster. And it is at that moment where I am inevitably turned off and I turn away with a sense of disappointment.

    I strikes me that on the cross Jesus kept the way of power open. He had the authority and knew it but refused to work it out and manifest it. He went to the cross instead. That really has to be our model even as we function in the day to day world, have authority over others at work, or teach or whatever we do. Somehow, we must leave things open to challenge and change and to those that are so often excluded through the quest for power.

    • Thanks Cheryl, I think this is exactly right, and of course is the opposite of the appeasement view of the cross where Jesus’ sacrifice is seen as closing the circle of power so that God’s sovereignty can be re-established. Instead I believe it to be the place where God lays his authority down, pours it out, gives it away. His resurrection is proof and demonstration that this kenotic power is indestructible and unstoppable. It is an utterly different kind of power to domination. I don’t have all the words for it yet, and we need them to shift the current mindset of power. I am curently finalising and writing up my research on this as the final chapter of my thesis so some of what I come up with I will continue to blog speculatively in hope of good collaboration!

      • well, what comes to mind is ‘blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth’. My cynical/ironic/wry take on that is that those who exercise dunamis won’t want it once they are through stripping the earth of everything and leaving it barely inhabitable. The meek will be the only ones left foolish enough to want the planet. And I think, considering that the view of the world can only be that it is foolishness to have authority and not manifest it as power that meekness is the answer.

    • I really appreciate your comment as the example that you gave I feel really opened up what Roger was getting at in a way that I could put my feet on (no pun intended).

      However I still have to ask. Did Jesus really open up their closed circle of power and leave it open or did He expose it to a greater more real reality. Which is in itself a closed system of authority and power.
      I have no problem with this at all.

      In life there are many hard realities and God is the eventual Author of reality.

      I don’t understand the statement “It is why it is especially important that the people of God don’t take the short cut of bringing together exousia and dunamis to justify their leadership gifts or the strategies God gives them for the increase of the kingdom.” I need an example to know what you mean by this I’m afraid. How do you do this? Throw your weight around because your the boss? Is that what you mean? Whereas there is real Godliness in a humble heart?

      I agree that close systems present false freedoms and are a method of brain washing. Fear and hopelessness are a time honoured method of control.

      I agree that the World strives for absolute control and that such control marks the work of the antichrist.

      But I what are we to make of this scripture Revelation 2:26-29 “26 To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— 27 that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’ —just as I have received authority from my Father. 28 I will also give that one the morning star. 29 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

      Now don’t get me wrong, I have seen so much pain and injustice and continue to see it ( I passionately long for Revelation 11:17 “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
      the One who is and who was,
      because you have taken your great power
      and have begun to reign.”

      With all my heart I want God to come in and make sense of it all and fix it all.
      All these passages talk about God’s authority, it’s not thrown around willy nilly and it’s not thrown around for His personal purposes (AT ALL). But authority it is and ultimate authority as well, remember the verse, he who sins against me I will blot out of my book.

      If I have got the wrong end of the stick, please straighten me out.
      Many thanks

      • Justin, this is a quick reply as its rather late. It simply underlines what I have said before and will develop at various future points no doubt. My whole theology is based on and developed out of the faith standpoint that the Jesus of the gospels is both the Jesus of history and the God of eternity. This is my hermeneutic, my interpretative tool. I interpret the Old Testament and the rest of the New in this light. So the idea that God will operate in the future in ways that don’t fit with the Jesus of the gospels is strange and off the wall to me. So his great power is always the power of the life laid down, and verses that suggest otherwise need praying over and reconsidering until we can understand them in that light. This means that I’m still wondering about some verses. I know what they can’t mean, I just haven’t sorted out what they do mean yet! This process helps us see ways in which we have made incorrect assumptions and conclusions. Like the verse I think you may be referring to in your paraphrased reminder at the end of your comment. “He that overcomes, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (Rev 3:5). This seems to suggest that we all start out IN the book, and rather than being a warning about the Lord blotting us out, it is an encouragement to overcome the domination system of this world in the same way that he overcame.

  5. And with that challenge in mind have you seen the news article by the BBC –

    ‘Jesus had HIV’ sermon sparks South African fury

    When I first saw the name I thought “What! Must these people continuously blaspheme?” When I read the story I thought “Wow, this guys really understands something”

    Dunamis – the power of a life laid down in action.

    God bless

    • In Christ on the cross God became sin for us [2 Cor 5:21]. This is how much he loves us. Surely this means that there is no sin or sickness, either in principle or effect, that God has not identified with on our behalf.

  6. I realized something more last night. When Jesus refused to exercise dunamis and instead went to the cross he left things open for us. But he also left things open for himself/God. God is open to change, challenge and doing things differently. That’s pretty exciting to me and leads to what I call my A-Z theology.

    An explanation. I long ago realized that not infrequently God would promise me something and it would not pan out. Frustration and anger on my part. New promises on God’s part. The need would get met just through different means.

    So I understood that prophecy was always provisional due to free will. And if a promise of God for a certain kind of provision, for example, relied on others doing something then it was always a possibility that something else would happen. So Plan A falls through and God moves to Plan B.

    In human thinking generally Plan B is the second best, it means something failed and now we fall back on Plan B. But I realized that God has Plans A-Z and neither one is worse or better than the other. All are equally good and all can get God and I to where He wants me to be. But all depends on things remaining open. If the circle is closed, if the system only allows one kind of response, or perhaps two, then we all, including God, lose out.

  7. This is exactly what I saw with a brother in Christ yesterday! They own a massive house and a church was offering to buy it for teenage pregnant girls to give them support; in the end the church declined and this vision will not be. The brother struggled with this, but said ‘God does have plan B!’ It’s helpful to realize this is not a lesser thing, just God not giving up…
    Thanks for this confirmation!

  8. So, I just had an experience here in Italy that speaks about open space for human and humane behaviour. As most would know Italy ranks really low on the corruption scale (that’s a bad thing). It is considered a corrupt government. But I’ve noticed while living here that ordinary people have used the corruption to carve out human and humane space within the system. In a sense they turn the system around to work for them.

    I needed to visit a doctor and get some prescriptions filled as I have stayed longer than I expected. One of these is blood pressure meds so I can’t fool around with that. I am not registered with the health system here though I continue to get letters that offer me free medical check ups. Anyhow, a friend arranged, through her mother, for me to visit a doctor who speaks English. I went. The agreement was that he would give me the necessary prescriptions under the mother’s name. We had a lovely visit. He gave me the prescriptions and charged me nothing.

    Then I walked home and visited the pharmacist to get the prescription filled. No problem even though I lack a city ID card. This pharmacist does know me and we have developed a relationship so it was not a problem. And the drugs were free. When I noted that this was very progressive the woman serving me shook her head. I explained how much I would pay for such drugs in Canada. She was shocked. In Italy drugs you need for life and living are free.

    So, a corrupt system in which people, the doctor and the pharmacist, made space to serve me, in all humanity to meet the need of a visitor and stranger. If the system was not corrupt it would have been more difficult to do. So it seems to me, in the spirit of this discussion, that perhaps corruption (maybe we need another word here) is a means by which people circumvent the restrictions of the system that combines authority and power. It is a way to make space. Yes, they can use that space for their own ends as many do. Or, as some do, they can use that space to meet the needs of other people. At least, they have a choice. Interesting eh?

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