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Prof. Barrett Gritters, professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Hudsonville PRC

Solomon spoke of more than a few evils that he had seen under the sun (Eccl. 5:13, 6:1). If we may use his template, “There is a sore evil that we see more and more under the sun, namely, God’s people using their strength to the hurt of their neighbor.”

We can use power for great good or we can abuse it for greatest harm, and it seems that these days the harm becomes greater. Even in the church.

Governments use power for good. They stop crimi­nals and control citizens with it. Government’s power stops aggressive enemies. But government’s power can also kill babies and imprison those who speak truth.

Businesses have power. Labor unions have power. Teachers have power. Athletes have power. Entertainers have power. Billionaires have power. Everyone has pow­er—parents, spouses, children. Even little people have power. All of them can use their strength for good or evil.

That is the concern of this editorial, because God’s people have power that they can use wrongly to hurt. They try to control, move, stop, change, influence, bend others. In their sin, they do it for evil. This is abuse of power. Parents hurt children; husbands and wives hurt one another; elders and ministers can hurt members.

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We learn from God, who has power above all powers and always uses it for good—to bless His people or stop the wicked. I marvel at His power that created the world (Gen. 1) and now upholds and governs the universe (Heb. 1:3) for our blessing and His glory. Watch His strength to make the hinds to calve and the rain gently fall on the fields (Ps. 29). But His might also breaks cedars and shakes the wilderness, hurls down lightning bolts and great hailstones, and strips forests bare. Using His power to stop the wicked, He sat, as Psalm 29 puts it, enthroned as King over the Flood. He carried mountains into the sea. Then, be more amazed that His strong hand turns a king’s heart (Prov. 21:1), bends a man’s will, changes a woman’s mind. By His power He conforms men to His image, makes them think His thoughts and do His will. God is strong and God is always good in the exercise of His power.

Civil government’s power to stop criminals and con­trol citizens and protect us from oppressive neighbors is God-given power (Rom. 13). The instrument God gave the magistrate is the sword power, or physical restraint. Police and prison stop criminals. Guns and bombs stop an enemy nation from overtaking our nation.

We Christians likewise have God-given power. We are called to exercise it to bless and protect and some­times to restrain.

The question is how to exercise power? What tool should we use to influence others? Governments have the sword. What do Christians use?

I mean, especially (although not only) Christians in authority: a parent, spouse, elder, minister, teacher. A parent wants to change his children, a man his wife, a woman her husband. A man is not conducting himself as his wife desires. What shall she do? A woman does not behave as her husband wants. How can he change her? Parents want their children to think differently, do differently, be different—for God’s sake, for their own good, and maybe the protection of their other children. How can they accomplish that? Ministers and elders see members hurting themselves or hurting others. How can they promote or cause change?

Answering this question wrongly can bring horrible damage to God’s people. Instead of using God’s power, they use human power and, in the process, harm instead of bless. Probably they view their power as their own, and for their benefit, rather than as God’s gift for the good of others. I have often wondered how many have been driven from the church and from God by those who do not understand, or do not want to understand, power.

The violence of the bully

Men and women today who try to control others by human power are bullies and brutes who strongarm their neighbors. Brutes and bullies are common today in ungodly society, but you will find them more and more among Christians. They are in Christian homes, but maybe also in consistory rooms and schoolrooms where supervision may be lacking, or oversight may be weak. Husbands, wives, elders, ministers, schoolteachers, and parents can all be brutes. The Bible calls them “violent” and God hates violence and those who love it (Ps. 11:5).

A violent man coerces his wife to do what he wants because he is stronger than she is. He forces her into submission. Fear of his power (even violence) stops her from doing one thing and drives her to do something else—what he wants. But instead of blessing her, this power hurts her. Instead of promoting their relation­ship, he damages and even destroys it. His actions were not love but hate. He does not know what God’s power is or how to use it.

A parent, with violence or the threat of it, can force his will upon a child. Battered and bruised, the child will comply, but only out of fear. He does not learn obe­dience but only how to escape another beating. Rather than strengthen the bond between dad and son, the vio­lence damages it. The beatings were not love but cruelty. Sooner or later (and probably as soon as he can) the child leaves home and probably the church that dad rep­resented. Maybe he even leaves God Himself, because dads picture God and who would be attracted to such a god? Dad did not know what God’s power is or how to use it.

A woman can be violent with her husband or child, too. Now maybe not with her hard fists but with her sharp tongue. God also hates her violence, which is the violence of cruel, demeaning, humiliating, threatening, terrorizing words—words that bruise and wound and disfigure as painfully and as permanently as fists and knuckles, and maybe more. The words do not bless but curse, and instead of building up the bonds of marriage and motherhood, they gradually but relentlessly destroy the relations. Her husband runs to the housetop (Prov. 21:19) and her children run away. She does not know what God’s power is or how to use it.

Ministers can be bullies. You may have had one as your pastor. They move others, including their elders, with hard words and threats, with forceful language and a voice of intimidation. If their words are not loud, their stance is inflexible, their wills are like steel. Not fulfilling this minister’s will is a sign of weakness, prob­ably of not being Reformed. He gets his way. He always gets his way. He probably convinces enough with his words that he is strong for God’s cause and truth and those who oppose him are not God’s friends. This man does not help the congregation but damages it. Ironical­ly, the one man in the church who ought to know best what God’s power is and how to use it, does not. The results in churches are devastating.

Organizations can be bullies by shaming or “cancel­ing” people who do not buy into their thinking. Angry people on Facebook can be bullies.

But everyone can be a bully because the bully is in all of us, naturally, and we are very inventive in how to be so. To borrow from John Newton, “I have read of many wicked bullies; but the worst one I have ever met is Bully Self.” Boyfriends can threaten their girlfriends to stick with them, maybe by threatening suicide. Girls have powerful emotional weapons to manipulate boy­friends. Young people in school can bully through social media. Women can use fists and men can use smooth words. Elders can strive as well as ministers. We are all brutes by nature.

Converting the bully

If we are to help the bully, what he needs is the gospel because a brute does not know the gospel. If he knows anything at all about it, he is not living it. Since he has not experienced the gospel’s power in his own life and how it changed him, he does not know the real power that can change others around him. The violent person has not heard or experienced the sweet and irresistible power of God’s grace.

Anger toward the bully, therefore, is appropriate, but so is pity. In other words, although it is necessary to stop a violent person, put him or her out of the church if they are impenitent, or restrain them from doing more damage to others, a bully is miserable and, if he can be changed, those who recognize his misery must bring the gospel to him. The bully needs to know by personal experience how God changes His people by His sweet and powerful Word.

If I am amazed at God’s ability to throw a moun­tain into the sea or hold the stars in their place, how much more marvelous that God changes us? He turns us, bends our will, breaks hard hearts, changes wicked minds, conforms us to His image by the sweet and ir­resistible power of the gospel! We know that it was not violence or the threat of harm that turned us, but His love and kindness that mercifully appeared, changing my malicious heart into a kind one (Tit. 3:3-5). Every day, gradually and efficaciously, it is not physical force but love and tenderness that conforms me to God’s im­age. The goodness of God leads me to repentance (Rom. 2:5). His truth sanctifies me (John 17:17). Grace is the power that makes me willing (Ps. 110:3) to serve Him. We cannot resist God’s grace, not because it forces us against our will, as human power does, but because it changes our will. “[E]vidently most powerful,” that grace is “at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable…” (Canons III/IV:12). God’s power works within. Delightfully!

Jesus’ own life was a testimony of how God’s power works in His people.

Watch Him perform a wonder work to transform His ambitious, self-serving disciples into servants will­ing to die for others. He did not quarrel or strive, lifting up His loud voice in the streets (Is. 42:2; Matt. 12:19). Apostle John wrote that Christ, knowing that He came from God and would return to God because He was God (John 13:3)—this One who wraps the heavens in the clouds—wrapped Himself in a servant’s towel. Rising from the supper with His disciples, He did the unthinkable: He washed their feet. And the end of this precious story, when Peter was probably still confused, is that Jesus left the upper room because He had an ap­pointment at Calvary to die for these disciples—as their servant. “Put away your sword, Peter; you do not under­stand how My strength works. My help for you is that I will die for you.” Here is God’s power: that sacrificial service, that simple but profound act of dying for His own. It is the explanation of the entirety of our salva­tion as well as the key to understanding how we may exert power.

When I know that love by personal experience, I will do anything for Him. That is the power of grace. That is how God controls me, bends my will, breaks my heart, makes me willing and eager to serve Him. It is how God teaches us to change others.

When a person understands grace, then, two things will happen: First, he will gladly employ the Word of grace as the tool to influence others for good. Noth­ing less and nothing more. He knows that “no human power delights” God. Second, his own new life of being conformed to God’s image will be so delightful to him that he will not seek to conform his wife or children into his image, but into God’s.

In the end, then, there may be many reasons that a person would use wrong means to change others—sin­ful anger, a sense of self-importance, a proud desire to project his strength and impose his will on other people. At bottom the explanation is that he or she does not understand God’s grace in his own life.

Learn grace

The sweet power of God’s Word. Always the Word of the gospel.

“The servant of the Lord must not strive…but be gen­tle…instructing…” with God’s Word (read all of II Tim. 2:24-26). This applies not only to elders—the first ref­erence in Paul’s warning to Timothy—but to all God’s people. Do not fight with people who need changing. Parents, aside from the select and careful use of the rod when the children are young, God is not pleased to use physical power to change your children, but spiritual—His Word. Husbands and wives, the power to influence your spouse for good, even to stop them from harming others, is not your strong arm or acidic tongue, but the patient and meek application of God’s Word. For fight­ing not only will not accomplish what you want but will in fact do the opposite—make them as much the brute as (and more than) you.

A violent man or woman will affect nothing in others except to tempt them to violence. That is what the chil­dren learn from a violent dad or a harsh mom, a sarcas­tic wife or an angry husband. How devastating to see children copy their parents’ sin. So, there is reason for even more pity for the bully, when his children become brutes to their spouses and bullies to his grandchildren.

Luther’s hymn is right. A “little word” is what we need as we face the foe of violence, in ourselves or in others. Speak that word. “Peradventure” (II Tim 2:25) God will use it to convert them.

We have a powerful God!