Monday, 6 June 2011

Subjugation or Liberation?

Sitting in a postgraduate seminar recently, I heard the following PhD thesis question: Why do the discourses and practices of religious authority in some Christian communities reproduce power relations that tend to subjugation? It’s a question that snuck up on me, and has haunted my thoughts ever since. The thought that lingers in my heart is this, “How do we/I prevent this from happening and protect the community that we/I serve from a power relation that tends toward subjugation?”

When I heard the thesis question, my mind jumped to Ephesians 4, a passage I had been pondering for a class I was teaching on the Prison Epistles. Building from the first three chapters which establish and proclaim the ultimate power and authority as God the Father and the Lord Jesus (Eph 1:19-21), the author gives two vivid descriptions of God’s defeat over the powers. Firstly, the writer describes God’s defeat over the powers of death, the devil and the various patterns of this world that enslave humanity (Eph 2:1-10), then on the flip side of the coin, the writer explains God’s defeat over various divisions among humanity and elements that cause division (2:11-16). The writer celebrates God’s victory by noting that God has built a monument of his victory, the Church (2:17-22). In 3:10, we are told that it is through this renewed humanity and community that God will display his victory over the powers to the whole earth. That is a startling declaration! Through ordinary human beings and their relationships with each other in community, God will declare and proclaim his victory over those things that seek to kill, steal and destroy. Finally, we come to chapter four which begins with a summons to hold onto the unity that the gospel has established with those who have trusted the gospel (4:1-6). We are instructed not to establish the unity but to maintain that which God has already established. Then, in the next section we are reminded of the ascended Lord (the true and ultimate authority) who has given gifts of leadership/authority to the Christian community (4:7-13).

So how does Ephesians address the thesis question noted above? Firstly, Ephesians subverts all power relations in chapter one by reminding the audience that GOD is the GREAT BENEFACTOR of the universe who deserves the praise for who is and what he has done (1:3-14). God has all the power and no-one can defeat Him (1:19-21). Thus, those in authority are to be custodians of his will, and not a power unto themselves. Those in authority are under authority, and should always remember that. Secondly, God’s power liberates and seeks the well-being and benefit of the other, not their enslavement. In our various relationships with people, we should constantly ask if what we are doing and communicating is bringing freedom and liberation, not enslavement to our own wants, needs, desires, vision, and mission. Religious authority/leadership is a gift to the Christian community. People should experience it as a gift, and not a curse. Thirdly, the purpose of religious authority in 4:11-13 is the releasing and building up of those in Christ so that everyone attains maturity, understanding and becomes Christ-like. These authorities do not exist for themselves, but rather for the maturation and benefit of others so that they may attain the goal of becoming Christ-like. Does our leadership reflect this vision? Do we seek to educate our communities and help them to become Christ-like to the point where they may not need us anymore? The aim of the writer here seems to be a mutually beneficial community where religious authority is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Ephesians creates a narrative in which both those in authority and those under authority are reminded of who the ultimate authority is, and to what end God exercises authority. The audience is to find themselves in this story, and see their role in helping others reach God’s goal of a renewed and reconciled humanity (1:10; 3:10). Of course, this reflection is theological and incomplete and furthermore there are a host of logistical and practical issues to consider. But hopefully good biblical theology spawns methodology and praxis, as well as further reflection.

Questions, comments, critiques, are all welcome as long as we remember Ephesians 4:15-16.


  1. Great post Shaun, that thought has unsettled me for a long time too! A few friends were having this conversation the other night, and kept coming back to the role of community participation in helping leadership liberate people rather than enslave them (although our process was far less solid and exegetical!) We need community dialogue with leadership to remind us how easily any form of advantage can shift from use to misuse. Power does something to us and if we're not careful and acknowledge this we don't even notice the line blurring between use and misuse... I think the practical implications of your exegesis of the roles community and deconstruction can play could be worth a discussion, I'll try throw some thoughts around on Thursday!

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