Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 30, 2012

Earning the Right To Be Heard

Christians in America have gained a reputation for being very outspoken about their opinions on issues of morality and public policy. This is understandable. There are major changes going on in our culture and many Christians are nervous that the values they have long held on to are being compromised.

While these concerns may be legitimate, I think that the church desperately needs to discern how best to go about influencing our secular culture. Often I find that the message is compromised by the method being used. There are too many examples of Christians resorting to militant behavior. Change is sought by trying to leverage power and coerce others into following suit.

I read an interesting article last week by Tony Campolo, where he makes an important distinction between “power” and “authority.” Power is focused primarily on coercion. People who seek to bring about change through power do so by trying to impose there will or coerce people to change. Authority, on the other hand, is something that is earned. A person with authority has gained the respect of others and out of that reputation is able to call people to change.

Campolo illustrates this by recalling a powerful story. I will quote it at length because he tells it well. He writes:

Now, a good example of what I mean by authority is in the story of Mother Teresa. There is a city not too far from Eastern University where they have a state hospital. In the state hospital they have people who are emotionally and psychologically disturbed. It’s a huge place. Well, the directors of the hospital wanted to start these halfway houses so that people who were on their way to full recovery could be nurtured from the hospital back into society, by first going to these halfway houses and from there they could get jobs and, little by little, own their own residences. It was a transition stage and that’s why they wanted these five halfway houses. Needless to say, the people in the city weren’t particularly thrilled with the possibility of this prospect. There was a city council meeting. The place was packed. Five hundred people plus squeezed into this hall, yelling and screaming their opposition to the halfway houses. They didn’t want the, quote unquote,“crazies” living in their neighborhood.

Needless to say, the city council voted unanimously against the proposal. Not much discussion. A lot of yelling and a lot of screaming and the city council said no to the proposition. No sooner had they voted that the back doors of the auditorium were opened and in came Mother Teresa. She was in town for a ceremony dedicating a Sisters of Charity program and she heard about this meeting. She came down the center aisle and everybody gasped as Mother Teresa came to the front, got down on her knees in front of the city council, raised her arms and said, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you affirm them, you embrace Jesus.” And then with her arms upraised, five times in a row she said, “Please, please, please, please, please, in the name of God, make room for these people! Make room for them in your neighborhoods.”

Now, you’re on the city council, the television stations have followed Mother Teresa into the place and they’re grinding away. The newspaper reporters are there. There is Mother Teresa on her knees in front you. What are you going to do if you’re on the city council? You guessed it! “I move we change the decision.” And then a second to the motion and they voted unanimously to reverse the decision they had made a few minutes earlier. The newspapers reporting on this the next day said the most remarkable thing is that of the five hundred plus people packed into that hall, not a one of them uttered a word of opposition to the motion. Why? Because of Mother Teresa. She spoke as one having authority. Where did she get that authority? On the streets of Calcutta, loving sacrificing for the poor and the oppressed of the world, giving of herself to meet the needs of others sacrificially. Sacrificial love earned her authority.

Campolo’s story illustrates an important point. If Christians want to impact our culture we must start by being sacrificial. We cannot coerce people to change. It is only when we demonstrate to the world that we really care and that we will earn the right to be heard.

This principle was modeled to us by Jesus himself. This coming Sunday John will be preaching on Philippians 2:5-11. In this text we read, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the every nature of a servant.”

Jesus did not seek power. Instead, Jesus gave away power and took on the nature of a servant. Yet, out of this disposition of servanthood, Jesus gained the authority that allowed him to change the world!

Have we earned the right to be heard in our culture? How do we make this shift from power to authority?

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Responses

  1. I saw this quote from Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ, the other week that I think encapsulates this sentiment you express perfectly–

    “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Before you tell me how much you love your God, show me how much you love all His children. Before you preach to me of the passion of your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell and sell as how you live and give.”

    1 John 3:18 puts it even more succinctly: “Little children, let us not love with words and speech, but with action and with truth.”

    Am praying that you and many other of our colleagues lead our churches in demonstrating that we care through our sacrifices, not our rhetoric.

    • Thanks for developing this idea with that great quote and biblical reference. I share your prayer. We have a lot of undoing to do.

  2. What a powerful commentary. I appreciate reading the distinction between power and authority. And what a great example Mother Teresa is. Still.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Victoria! We certainly need good examples. I wish there were more out there so that we did not always have to look to the obvious ones!


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