Lord Acton was absolutely right that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He may have been more right, however, if he had adapted a bit of biblical wisdom in articulating the dangers of power. What if he had said instead:“The love of power is the root of all kinds of evil.” Just as greed is not the exclusive province of the rich, so the hunger for power extends well beyond the powerful, and with it goes all manner of evil. Those without power often seek power by sidling up to the powerful. If you have no power, the next best thing may be to get close to those who do.
We see this principle worked out in spades in the English Reformation. As has been well covered in this issue, the Reformation came to England not because of a popular uprising of the people. It was not rooted in the heartfelt convictions of the clergy. The Reformation came to England because a king wanted a new wife, one who would bear him a son. The king thought he was pulling the strings of the clergy to get what he wanted, while the clergy believed they were pulling the strings of the king to get what they wanted. O, what a tangled web they weaved when the English Reformation was first conceived. At any given moment, the shape of the Reformation was determined not by the Word of God, but by who had the king’s ear. This inauspicious beginning laid the groundwork for what would ensue – centuries of confusion, death, and strife.
Trying to untangle the knots created by shifting alliances, convicted consciences, and the providence of those born to inherit thrones may make for an interesting historical survey. What may be better, however, would be for us to consider our own failures and weaknesses as we set about the business of reformation in our own lives. Whose ears do we seek access to, and to whom are we listening? Rather than trying to divine whether the church of England skewed too Romish or whether its problems grew out of its Erastianism may just be a distraction from examining our own lives.
Reformation, rightly understood, is nothing more than dominion. Adam and Eve, in being called to rule over the creation, were called to re-form the world. After the fall, the call to dominion abides, and so does the call to re-form. Now we are not merely turning jungle into garden, for we are at the same time turning sin into righteousness. Our re-formation is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, remaking the sinful dust of our fallen father, Adam, into the glorious gold of our elder brother, Jesus, the second Adam. The Reformation not only is not over, but it will not end until all things are brought into subjection. Those “all things” certainly includes the rulers of England, both ecclesiastical and civil. They certainly include all who rule here in these United States. They include our churches, our culture, our labors. But they begin with our families, ourselves, our hearts.
In the economy of God, we do not re-form by seeking power. We do not re-form by seeking the ear of those in power. The only way to re-form is to die. The dead have no lust for power. They have no ears to be tickled. They have no lips with which to seduce others. Indeed, this is where our power is found. By being powerless we are beyond the seducing power of power. By being dead, we strike fear in the hearts of the powerful, for their power has no sway over us.
In the economy of God, the great things that we do for the kingdom we do in peace and quietness. When we speak to our children of the things of God, we are bringing reformation. When we visit the widow on our block, we are bringing reformation. When we sit down in a moment of quiet and meditate on the powerful Word of God, we are bringing reformation. When we wash the dishes after sharing a feast with our fellow saints, we are bringing reformation. We bring reformation to the world in the very ordinary tenor of our lives.
We have no need to sit next to kings, for we are seated beside the King. Indeed, we are kings and queens with Him, seated in the heavenly places. We do not need to seize the engines of ecclesiastical authority, for we are already a royal priesthood. We need not seek positions of power and influence, that we might whisper in the ears of the powerful. Instead, we must make known our desires to the Almighty, Him whom we are instructed to call, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” We need not tear out the great weeds of unbelief that infest the church at large. We need only tear out the great weeds of unbelief that infest our tiny little hearts, that we might instead bear much of the fruit of the Spirit.
We must re-form our understanding of Reformation. The world is changed through service, not power. It is changed by service to “the least of these” rather than the powerful. Perhaps to understand this better, we ought to tell ourselves the next time we find ourselves changing a dirty diaper: “Be of good cheer. For in this deed we shall light a fire across the globe such as shall never be put out.” Perhaps that is what it means to play the man.