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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

August 21, 2016

Fight the Power(s)!

Genesis 3:8-21; Colossians 3:18-4:1

            Have you ever seen the Disney movie Aladdin? I think I watched it about fifteen times, several summers back when Drew and Will still spent more time with Anne and me than they did with their peers. In the Disney version of Aladdin, the royal vizier Jafar schemes to seize control of the realm from the Sultan whom he supposedly serves. In the movie’s climactic scene, Jafar does battle with Aladdin, while the Genie (voiced by Robin Williams) is stuck in the middle. Jafar’s wish is to have what he calls, in a very loud, very intimidating, very evil voice, “Absolute Power.”

            Power is our subject today. Power in relationships: husband and wife, parent and child, worker and boss. And though you may be familiar with Lord Acton’s comment that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, I want to suggest that it’s not quite like that. I want to suggest to you today that power is not innately evil; rather, it’s how a person uses power that matters. Power can be used wisely, or foolishly. We will return to Jafar, but let’s go back a little further, to the garden of Eden.

            It was there that power first became corrupted. You remember the story of how the serpent tricked the woman. He promised that if she would only eat the fruit that God had declared off limits, she would become like God, knowing good and evil. Eve let that sink in, and decided that if eating the fruit would make her wise, then she would eat. And she did and she shared it with her husband, and he ate. But it didn’t make them wise; it didn’t make them like God. It only opened their eyes to their nakedness; it made them ashamed in front of each other and God.

            We read a moment ago the results of their folly, of their effort to become like God. There were many, but I want to focus on one today: “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” There is the curse that came from overstepping the limit: not an increase in wisdom and power, but a decrease. Not equality with God, but inequality with the husband.

            We who gather in this place thousands of years later, who deal with the reality of power in our relationships every single day, look to this ancient story for wisdom on what to do. We expect some revelation that sits at the heart of things, a wisdom that never grows old.

            And I’ll say that it’s interesting that for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, biased interpreters have quoted this verse to justify men ruling over their wives. Actually, it’s not interesting; it’s tragic. For a Christian to quote this curse as justification for inequality is bad theology. Here is why: It is to treat a curse as if it were a blessing. Inequality between the woman and man is a result of sin, not God’s original design. One of my seminary professors declared that this moment in time was, in fact, the moment when the battle of the sexes began. This, in the biblical story, is when the struggle for power between men and women began. Ever since, men and women have been fighting this battle with the weapons at their disposal, both seeking power over the other.

            One of my first lessons in this ancient battle was from a coworker of mine. We were in our twenties, both natives of North Carolina and working in Washington, D.C. She asked me once, “Stuart, don’t you know that the art of being a southern woman is to be in charge in the relationship, while you make the man think that he is in charge?” Honestly, Beth, I didn’t know that, and I am so glad you told me.

            Beth ended up getting married about a year later, to a very handsome guy from Ohio. I remember thinking, “Dude, I bet you have no clue what you’re in for.”

            Men and women fight this battle of the sexes using the weapons at their disposal. They live as if the curse were God’s original intention. They perpetuate the ancient curse, play out the story day after day, year after year, not realizing that God has done something already to reverse the curse. We fight these power struggles, not realizing who the real opponent is. We fight for power over the other, not realizing that the serpent represents powers that would keep us both under the curse, outside the freedom that Christ has won for us. It’s that freedom that Colossians declares in chapter two, where it says that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them.”

            The battle of the sexes is over. Every woman or man who continues to engage in this battle is living under a very old curse that Christ has reversed. It is, quite simply, foolish to keep living that way. It may be an art for a southern woman to be in charge while making the man think that he is in charge; but it is an art of war, and that war need not be fought anymore, at least not by anyone who believes in the wisdom and power of the cross. Husbands, your wives are not the opponent. Wives, your husbands are not the opponent. Don’t fight the wrong opponent. Don’t fight for power over each other. Instead, fight the powers that want to keep you both under a curse. Get together and share the blessing of Christ for your relationship, a blessing that is found in mutual servanthood.

            Now, I’ll go ahead and tell you that this lesson has to be gleaned from more than our passage for this morning. Colossians 3 says simply, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” We need, in order to glean a full blessing from this, to bring in two other passages that offer very similar instruction. I Peter 3 and Ephesians 5 offer household instructions also. For the sake of time, I’ll summarize: Husbands and wives have mutual obligations to one another. The phrase “subject yourselves to” means, “treat the other person as better than yourself.” Or, “put the other person on a pedestal.” It doesn’t mean that men are superior to women. It doesn’t get philosophically reflective about the notion of equality. Instead, it concerns itself with how wives and husbands are to treat each other in a Christian marriage. In other words, equality is a useless concept for Christian marriage. We have to do better than equality. Struggles for equality are but a continuation of the power struggle. Fighting for a balance of power is no more blessed than fighting for a power advantage. You’re still fighting the wrong opponent!

            Instead, because Christ has reversed the curse, we are to fight the powers by imitating Christ: treating the other person as better than ourselves. Putting the other person’s interests above our own. It’s the counsel we receive for marriage, for parenting, and for employment. Don’t engage in power struggles. Fight the powers that would curse us, by doing what we do as if it were the Lord. Do what we do because of what the Lord did.

            In pre-marriage preparations, I often tell couples the story of a couple that had a dilemma as they got ready to marry. The groom liked to get together with his buddies on the weekends and watch the races. Part of the fun was sharing some beers. Unfortunately, this bothered the bride. She wasn’t a prude, but she had a history of alcoholism in her family. So it scared her that he would spend the day drinking. She asked him to stop.

            Now, here is a potential power struggle on full display. And it demonstrates how the notion of equality is meaningless in marriage. The groom readily affirmed equality in marriage. He did not expect to rule over his wife. Neither did he expect her to rule over him. And there was no way he would let her tell him not to drink beer with his buddies. I proposed to him that he could subordinate himself to his wife by voluntarily stopping. He could treat her as better than himself by agreeing to her request. He could put her interests above his own, and stop drinking.

            Now, gentlemen, you may be like one of my friends to whom I told this same story recently. You may be thinking what he said to me: “I don’t know a man alive who would do that.”

            Okay, so Paul died a long time ago. He isn’t a man alive. And Paul never was married himself. So, you may be asking yourself, “Why on earth would I trust the Bible on this one?” Well, let’s start with a more recent man before we work ourselves back to the Bible.

            George C. Marshall was a VMI graduate, an Army General, and Secretary of State. David Brooks, in writing last year about Marshall, said, “The whole object of VMI training was to teach Marshall how to exercise controlled power. The idea was that power exaggerates the dispositions – making a rude person ruder and a controlling person more controlling….  So it is best to learn habits of self-restraint, including emotional self-restraint, at an early age” (The Road to Character, 111).

            In writing about Marshall’s marriage to Elizabeth Carter Coles, Brooks says, “Marshall was pleased to put himself in her service, supplying her with little surprises, compliments, and comforts, always giving the greatest attention to the smallest details” (117).

            Now, I don’t know if Marshall ever gave up something he loved because his wife asked him. But he does seem to have understood that power is used wisely in service to others, not as a force over others. Parents bless their young children when they teach them obedience and self-control, rather than always trying to be friends with them. Employers bless their employees when they exercise their own authority with modesty and service. Employees who honor their employers do so as if to the Lord. But something in us, something that lingers from the garden of Eden, bristles at this. The Garden where Jesus was raised, though, promises something better: freedom from power struggles. And that really gets us back to the main point: Why on earth should you trust the Bible on this?

            All I have is what I have any given Sunday: God. All I have is the witness of who God is, as Jesus reveals him. Jesus was equal to God, but relinquished equality. He became one of us – human. So Jesus was equal to us, but then relinquished equality with us. He humbled himself, and treated us as better. He put our interests above his own. He obeyed God. Adam and Eve didn’t obey God, but Jesus did. Adam and Eve thought they could be wise like God, and disobeyed. Jesus already was wise like God, and he obeyed. He went to his death. And that is how the curse was reversed. That is how the powers were disarmed. It is the wisdom and power of the cross. And that, fellow Christians, is how you can end the battle of the sexes in your life.

            Choose to limit yourself. Choose not to use the weapons of war. Coercion is unnecessary now. Manipulation is unnecessary now. Stubbornness is unnecessary now. Whether it’s an external force or an internal force, it’s still force and it’s still the perpetuation of the curse. And since Christ has reversed the curse, Christians don’t need to fight for power anymore.

            This may be more complicated for young people than for their parents and grandparents. That’s because as wrong as the old rules of inequality were, at least everyone accepted the rules. Men were in charge.

            But now, those rules are gone, and couples are left to pretty much make it up on their own. I’m suggesting that this is the one rule you use: Subordinate yourselves to one another. Treat the other person as better than yourself. Put the other person’s interests before yours. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it takes two, and a wellspring of trust. Yes, you will spend the rest of your days trying to get it right. But it is a far better battle than the battle of the sexes. It’s the good fight. It’s the struggle for sanctification, for your own spiritual formation into the image of your Savior. Which battle do you want to fight?

            In Aladdin, Jafar’s wish is to have “absolute power.” It is that hunger for power that becomes his undoing, though. You see, Aladdin tricks Jafar. He says to him, “Jafar, you’re nothing without the Genie. You need the Genie to give you your power.” And Jafar falls for it. With his third wish, he asks the Genie to make him a Genie. And he does. And the moment he becomes a Genie, he becomes a slave to Aladdin, who consigns Jafar to a lamp, an “itty-bitty living space.” Such is the irony of seeking power. Adam and Eve ended up naked, ashamed, separated from one another and God. And every woman and man who fights this battle ends up the same.

            Those who become servants of one another, though, find their freedom. Those who fight the powers, the forces that would keep us living a curse, find their blessing. It is the blessing of the cross, the wisdom and the power of God for those who believe.


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