Reclaiming Power and Control

The Heart of Abuse is Not What it Seems

With awareness about abuse and its destructive effects on the rise, American Christians are being offered yet another manifestation of egalitarianism as the best possible response. This is unsurprising because modern notions of abuse have been forged within the fires of a feminist framework. The Southern Baptist Convention may be ground zero, but the battle is either already underway or coming soon to every major denomination. Cultural currents that have been sweeping over America for decades are seeking to determine the church’s response: will we be able to recognize what is happening and turn the tide?

The Duluth Model

It began in the 1980s when a coalition in Duluth, Minnesota was the first in the nation to offer a coordinated community response to wife batterers. The Domestic Abuse Intervention Program was born out of an admirable desire to help women to be safe from violent partners. By coordinating at every level: victims, police, probation officers, social workers, and the judiciary, Duluth pioneered an approach that has since been utilized in all 50 states and in 17 nations. The Duluth Model (DM), as it has come to be known, was a rousing success.

Behind the DM was Ellen Pence, a lesbian sociologist and activist who was deeply involved in the battered women’s movement under second-wave feminism. Pence self-consciously formed the DM with a feminist framework: “Whether the particular planners are aware of it or not, programs for batterers are situated in a political and historical context of the feminist anti-violence movement.”1 Feminist values and assumptions were baked into the cake from the outset.

Central to the DM is the idea that abusers are driven by a desire for power and control. Behind that desire lies a culture that has been formed by men for men in order to restrict women (and children) and to privilege men in the world. Therefore, when a man feels that he is losing power or control, he feels justified to use violence in an attempt to regain it. According to the DM, this kind of thinking has permeated our entire society, affecting us all: “We’ve all been socialized in a culture that values power, a culture in which the thinking that we challenge in the [batterer] groups is present in every aspect of our daily lives. Our schools, churches, and places of work are all structured hierarchically. All of us have engaged in at least some of the tactics batterers use to control their partners.”2 

This philosophy is best represented in their widely-utilized DM Power and Control Wheel:

The Wheel graphically displays the core value of POWER AND CONTROL and the requisite ring of VIOLENCE that encompasses it. Odds are that if you have received training in abuse, you have seen the Wheel or been instructed in its framework.

Under the DM, the solution to abuse is found in undoing the oppressive hierarchies that fill our culture: “When we as a society decide that women have certain subservient roles and men have certain privileged roles, then we also give men the message that they can enforce those roles with whatever tools are at their disposal…The historic oppression and continued subjugation of women in most cultures occurs because men have defined almost every facet of their societies, thereby perpetuating a sexist belief system and institutionalizing male privilege.”3 Therefore, the solution to abuse is found in dismantling hierarchy and fostering equality.

That understanding is represented in the DM Equality Wheel:

Again, the framework is direct and clear: EQUALITY is the core of a healthy relationship, and under such an understanding, persons can relate within an atmosphere of NONVIOLENCE. Thus under the DM, we find a clear and succinct description of the problem of abuse and its solution. Over the past four decades, the DM has gained increasing influence as its clear logic and comprehensive system have offered an attractive package for those seeking to understand and respond to the horrors of abuse. It is remarkable how ubiquitous the language of ‘power and control’ is within the world of abuse counselors, across the ideological spectrum.

Power for Good?

Before turning to analysis and response to the prevailing paradigm, it is necessary to recognize one more variable in the mix. In The Myth of a Christian Nation, Gregory Boyd popularized a power-over/power-under framework in calling Christians to eschew the “kingdom of the world” in order to live for the “kingdom of God.” According to Boyd: “While all the versions of the kingdom of the world acquire and exercise power over others, the kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances only by exercising power under others. It expands by manifesting the power of self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love.”4

While many may be unaware of the broader context of Boyd’s argument, his power-over/power-under approach has become increasingly popular within Evangelicalism, and especially in discussions about abuse. Jesus is often presented as having operated entirely within a power-under framework. Well-known psychologist and author Diane Langberg has recently written of the evils of what she terms Christendom, “the system of Christianity” that is dedicated to institutional power, in contrast with the way of Jesus. “Jesus used power not to rule but to influence, to invite, to welcome, and to transform.”5 Pastor and counselor Chris Moles has appealed to Christians to view power differently as well: “The bottom line is that we are different…The heart of pride longs for power over, but the heart of Christ calls for power under…I use power as a means of promoting and helping others…Power under places our priorities, motives, and expectations beneath those we love and serve, giving us little time or motivation to abuse.”6 Similarly, Jacob and Rachael Denhollander have written: “God himself perfectly identifies with the victim because he himself has willingly subjected himself to injustice. The cross is the ultimate repudiation of the idea that power is to be wielded for the benefit and pleasure of those who possess it.”7 There are some commendable truths in these ideas, and they certainly have some Scriptural support, but there is a fundamental flaw in the system.

The Fundamental Flaw

The great danger of the prevailing paradigm is that it offers little positive vision for power and control, for authority as biblically defined. Instead, it operates in broad sympathy with the framework of Critical Theory and its oppressor-oppressed paradigm. It is no coincidence that the prevailing paradigm of abuse has gained traction during the rise of Critical Theory in the West.

Because of this lack of a positive vision, power itself is seen as abusive.8 Its very existence makes the world unsafe, and thus essentially traumatic.9 Evangelicals who have embraced the power-over/power-under framework are therefore suspicious at best of efforts to engage in the public sphere,10 and an entire generation of Evangelical men have been taught that the second half of the phrase servant-leader is like the p in pneumatic: silent and seemingly unnecessary.11

But Scripture presents power and control as positive goods. They are fundamental to what it means to be human, and especially to be masculine12: the exercise of dominion over creation is central to the good that man does on the earth.13 Further, Scripture is abundantly clear that it is the Lord himself who has designed and designated the authority structures within his creation.14  

The very real problems of abuse will not be solved by attacking what the Lord has created to be good. They will not be solved by embracing egalitarianism, disempowering authorities, and seeking to enthrone sentimental notions of power-under servanthood that somehow always stops short of producing tangible and transformative change in the world. 

Sadly, there is no change that can be wrought that will prevent all abuse in this age; but it can be reduced in frequency, and treated rightly when it does occur. In the understandable and commendable desire to prevent abuse, many have rushed headlong into a system that is itself abusive and will produce more and greater injustices. But the biblical framework for understanding authority and abuse offers us a better way.

The correct response to abuse will occur as part of at least three broader, needed changes: first, we must respond justly when abuse occurs.15 A biblical understanding of justice must be embraced and deployed.16 The biblical duties of care and protection must be recognized and exercised. The police officers who went toward danger at Covenant School were exercising power-over for the good of everyone involved.17 They protected the innocent and confronted the guilty.

Second, we must regain a vision for the righteous goods of power and control, and authority, as God designed. All persons are called both to submit, and to exercise authority, in various contexts according to the designs of Providence. Critical Theory has sought to smear authority and power as inherently abusive, but Scripture teaches us otherwise. It is vital that Evangelicals embrace these concepts as positive goods and respond accordingly. 

The Exercise of Faith

But it is the third and final change that may be the most controversial—and thus the most needed in our day. Not only must we regain a positive vision for power and control, and authority, but we must also exercise those goods in faith—which means we must exercise them (in part) for righteous, personal gain. The pursuit of personal gain is a necessary and constituent part of the exercise of faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). 

The prevailing paradigm of abuse has misidentified the core problem. The problem is not one of power and control but of selfishness. It is not a matter of whether or not one pursues personal gain, but of whether or not such gain is righteous or unrighteous. Jesus himself pursued personal gain in undergoing the tortures of the cross: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

The abuser uses power and control for selfish gain, dominating others in a quest for selfish pleasures. Those who wish to live rightly in God’s world must not overcorrect by seeking to give up all power, control, authority, and gain. Instead, we recognize that though those qualities may be abused, they were given by God for our good and for the good of others in his world. We must pursue those goods humbly and in faith, and in that way we will both prevent much abuse and respond rightly to abuse when it occurs. We will take seriously our duties to protect those entrusted to our care—thus preventing abuse, and we will exercise and submit to authority in faith. Christians need not and must not give up our leadership in this age. Too much is at stake. To abdicate our God-given charge to exercise power and control in his world is to open wide the doors for more and greater abuses.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Show 17 footnotes
  1. Ellen Pence and Michael Paymar, Education Groups for Men Who Batter (New York: Springer Publishing, 1993), 172.
  2. Education Groups for Men Who Batter, 1.
  3. Education Groups for Men Who Batter, 147.
  4. Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 14.
  5. Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020), 177. Langberg even goes so far as to make vulnerability (lack of power and control) a prerequisite of love: “The capacity to love makes everyone vulnerable…even God. By creating us in such a fashion, he opened himself up to failure and injury. And injured he has been!”, 26.
  6. Chris Moles, The Heart of Domestic Abuse: Gospel Solutions for Men who Use Control and Violence in the Home (Bemidji, MN: Focus Publishing, 2015), 73.
  7. Jacob Denhollander and Rachael Denhollander. “Justice: The Foundation of a Christian Approach to Abuse.” Fathom Magazine. November 19, 2018.
  13. Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15-18.
  14. Romans 13:1-7.
  15. Responding justly to abuse is a broad and important topic that is beyond the scope of this article. Here I am addressing how we understand the nature of abuse and authority in God’s world. I hope to address the nature of a just response to allegations of abuse in a future article.
  16. In the quest to root out abuse,  many injustices are currently being promoted. The presumption of innocence and due process, for example, are being minimized or set aside altogether in these efforts. Title IX especially is being used by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to rework sexual assault cases at US universities:
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Steve Heitland

Steve Heitland is a pastor at Crossway Church in Lancaster County, PA, and a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Lori, have five children and a son-in-law.