When I was in Sunday School I was enthralled by the stories of the heroic characters of the Bible: Abraham leaving his country to go to the land God told him; Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt; David and Goliath; Esther and Mordecai; Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel; Peter walking on water with Jesus; Paul’s miraculous conversion.
Then as I grew older I discovered they were very flawed heroes: to save himself Abraham gave his wife to powerful men…twice, and thoroughly abused his wife’s maid, Hagar; Moses did everything he could to refuse God’s call; David was a bloodthirsty tyrant who slaughtered entire communities, committed adultery and murdered his mistress’ husband; Esther and Mordecai plotted bloodthirsty revenge on those who had hoped to murder them; Elijah developed a narcissistic martyr complex; Peter denied Christ three times; and Paul was so pig-headed he split from his ministry partner Barnabas over taking Mark on their missionary journey.
The Bible has a very healthy estimate of our capacity to do good and ill. It refuses to divide the world into ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. Rather, as Solzhenitsyn said, the dividing line between good and evil runs through each of us.
This helps explain the Bible’s suspicion of power. Poverty, for example, is only very rarely seen as the fault of the person who is poor. More often than not the blame is sheeted home to the powerful rich, who use their privileged position in society to structure its economy and politics in ways that benefit themselves.
It explains the Bible’s aversion to the concentration of political power. When Israel asked for a king, the prophet Samuel catalogued all the ways kings use power to serve their own interests. Give someone a lot of power and as sure as day follows night they’ll abuse it.
It also explains the ubiquity of household codes across the New Testament letters. These are passages describing how household members – husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves – should behave. They are found in Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, Titus and 1 Peter. In a culture where males wielded enormous authority, it was necessary to remind them that their power was to be used to serve their wives, their children and their slaves. If they had all been doing this there would have been no need to tell them to do it. The widespread presence of the household codes suggests the widespread abuse of power.
It seems to me we need to embrace this biblical suspicion of power. This doesn’t mean a retreat into cynicism, where all we can see are the failings of leaders, but it does mean approaching power with a willingness to offer a healthy critique and creating structures and systems that decentralise power as much as possible. This is just one reason why we need economic structures to foster equity across the population rather than leaving ourselves prey to a Darwinian survival of the fittest mentality; why liberal democracy is such an effective political system; why we need unions and other labour organisations.
All this is also a reason I am alarmed by the persistence of the notion of male headship in marriage. A healthy doctrine of sin tells us that the more power you give to an individual the more likely it will be abused. No matter how committed husbands are to serving the interests of their wife, If they are perceived as someone who has “authority”, there will come times they will abuse that authority. It could be a selfish decision. It could be a poor but well-intentioned decision to which a wife feels obliged to submit. At it’s worst it could be verbal, emotional or physical violence. But as sure as day follows night a healthy doctrine of sin means these sort of things will happen in relationships where one person has greater authority than the other.
Of course sin happens in egalitarian relationships as well. Egalitarians also act selfishly, ignorantly and, in some instances, violently. But the difference is this: egalitarian structures have a built in safety mechanism. If my wife thinks my ideas are bad or selfish she will argue the case, and she’ll keep on arguing until we reach a position that is satisfactory to both of us. At no point does she say, “I’ve had my say, now it’s time to submit to Scott’s selfish/foolish decision'”.
The best way to avoid abuse of power is to diffuse power.