Thursday, May 5, 2016

32. With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

By Laurie Haas

Calvin holds those in public office in high esteem. He even categorizes it as a “calling.” “Accordingly, no one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.” (Institutes XX, 4, p. 1490) He uses Romans as a foundation saying that there are no powers except for those ordained by God. (Romans 13:1)

I can agree that power comes from God, just as all that we are comes from God. However, in our brokenness, I’m afraid we misuse and abuse power in many ways that God would not or could not condone. For an extreme example, consider Hitler. He was a charismatic, powerful leader. We do not worship a God who would create a monster like Hitler to teach us a lesson. I believe that Hitler acted on his own free will out of a dark sinful place when he systematically began to murder millions of Jewish people. I’m not sure how reformed that thought is…)

Out of that rubble, God lifted up the voices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl, just to name a few.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Viktor Frankl
: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I believe that these giants have inspired and touched an exponential number of lives above and beyond the lives lost. Yet that still would not justify Hitler’s actions nor have God cheering in his corner. I believe all three of these victims would have a very difficult time buying into Calvin’s claim that wicked rulers should be obeyed and that God was the mastermind behind them, teaching us a lesson.

In Section 22, I think that Calvin is coming around to a more reasonable view as he talks about how honor is due to the office, and not the person, who may be unworthy. This makes sense, as we would have complete chaos if we didn’t have rules, rulers and order. However, Calvin loses me again when he says in section 25 of book 4, Chapter XX that the wicked ruler is a judgment of God. He cites Old Testament passages which is consistent with how they understood bad things happening in those ancient times. Today, however, we have to look at everything through the lens of Christ and to continue to apply our knowledge and understanding to situations.

How do you find and use your voice against injustice or unworthy leaders, while remaining connected to Christ?


  1. Laurie, I share your concerns about following unjust rulers on the order of Hitler or Idi Amin. However, I think that respect for the Democratic President if you are Republican (or vice versa) could use a little of Calvin's medicine. I think we have reached such levels of party animosity that almost nothing can get accomplished. In my employment, I have worked for bosses that I admired and some that I thought unworthy. I have always, however, found a way to work with them in order to care for the residents/patients in the facility. It just makes no sense otherwise. I can't imagine going to work (as a member of Congress, for example) for the sole purpose of destroying another's work.

    That being said, however, I think even Calvin might not have predicted the current path to election. I went to a seminar last week about leadership. One of the most valuable traits as a leader is humility (very biblical), but the presenter demonstrated that humility will never get you elected. Our system is now set up to weed out the very trait that is necessary.

    Now that I've finished my rant :), I do think that Calvin's last chapter went a long ways toward combating the vicious rulers that you mention. One must always put obedience to God above obedience to rulers that contradict God (4.20.32). Lane read that as only passive resistance, but I think Calvin was a little stronger than that.

  2. Thankyou Laurie for your thoughtful post. I especially liked your quote:
    “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Sharon I would agree that our response (4.20.32) must be more than passive. Calvin is calling for something different. For us in the 21st century this response is not always easy or clear. As the church we must encourage involvement and getting to the place where Christ is recognized above all of the "mess" found in the politics. Recognizing the authority of the office over the person is key. We get wrapped up in personal conflicts.

  3. Sharon, I agree with your assessment of trying to work together regardless of party affiliation. Somehow we have to rise above the personalities of leaders and bosses, to take our next best step...for others. After all, we are electing public servants! As you mention, with that role comes that vital quality of humility. Our Senior Pastor, who is a great servant leader, has this sign on his desk: "I must decrease, so he can increase." Our civil leaders do not seem to have this same mantra. As you mention, they would never get elected if they did.

  4. I know the most important thing for me is to stay consistent in my life. My values and ideals don't change or sway to the person I am talking to, but I try to remain them same regardless if it will be popular or appreciated. I try to maintain a common level with government issues and agendas. I believe that when you speak the truth in love and not hate or arrogance then people will listen and treat you better. When that happens your ability to actually cause something to change or happen will be better taken.

  5. I'm a bit hesitant to say that our modern knowledge (of tyrants such as Hitler, among other things) erases biblical injunctions to obey even bad rulers. Herod was no angel. Neither was Caesar. Yet those are the kinds of rulers Jesus and Paul would have had in mind. Our quite understandable (and not necessarily wrong; I'm not trying to settle this matter) bias toward resisting bad rulers probably has more to do with our social location as Americans than with the "lens of Christ." To determine the latter, you'd have to look at Christian perspectives across time and space, not assuming that the way we read the Bible is unchanging or normative.