Can I Play God? The Temptation That Is In Andy Crouch’s Book

2013-09-27-JSmith-CrouchPower is a problem in our society. If you aren’t convinced, just take a look at Congress’ approval rating. For the average modern person in the West, the question is not “will power be abused?” but “when?” Western universities are saturated with the suspicion of power. And it does not help when our churches produce regular examples of leaders who are caught abusing power. The result of all this is we are all deeply cynical about power.

Yet institutions and the churches cannot exist without the exercise of authority in ways that flourish human life. It is crippling to a church or any other institution when all authority is neutered. Churches without authority waffle and go nowhere. On the other hand, when power is exercised abusively, even worse things happen. The exploitation of power for the ends of a singular leader (or leadership) destroys the fabric of an institution. Many churches or institutions never recover. We therefore need a serious discussion about authority and power for Christian life and witness. In his new book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch gives us this serious discussion

Rehabilitating Power via Creation

In Playing God, Andy Crouch seeks to rehabilitate power. Right from the start he sets out to define power differently over against the naysayers who see all power as a corrupting force. He says true power does not confine or dominate. Rather it is a gift which enables human flourishing. Taking a page out of Milbank, Crouch rejects the Hobbesian, Foucaultian, Nietschian views of perpetual conflict as the (ontological) core of our human existence. Instead, Crouch sees human existence as created for mutuality. Crouch asks, is the “deepest truth about the world … the struggle for mastery and domination” or is it “collaboration, cooperation and ultimately love?” (p. 48). For Crouch “true being strives to create room for more power … a kind of being that delights in sharing space and a deeper truer being that is able to create more space” (p. 51). Crouch turns us away from understanding the world as fundamentally agonism, struggle and usurping to cooperation, relationship and joint participation.

And so Crouch picks up a metaphor from Star Trek and expounds on what true power is. True power can be found in the difference between Captain Picard’s command “Make it so” and God’s creative command “Let there be” (p. 33ff). The subordinates to “make it so” are limited by the command. They are told to do this, and that’s it. Execute the specific decision and be done. The “Let there be,” on the other hand, bequeaths power to others, making room for more power. “Let there be” opens up space for more. When we exercise power in the Picard way, the flourishing of more life is thwarted. The true image of God is lost in us. We forfeit the bearing of that image in which we were created to participate with God in His power. For Crouch, the true measure of power: whether it flourishes image bearing. When we exercise power as given to us by God in creation, this power flourishes more power and brings forth more life. It is important here to recognize just how much Crouch grounds his definition of power in creation. This is a dominant theme for Crouch.

Yet Power Does Go Bad and Here’s How

But power can go bad. And so Crouch unfurls an account of idolatry and injustice that helps us see how whenever an image is lifted up as God, whenever an end, or goal, or person, becomes lifted up over God Himself as the sole purpose for exercising this power, we have idolatry and injustice. The image of God is marred both in the one exercising power as domination and in the one being dominated. This is a strong part of the book. There is much to like in Crouch’s wonderful exposition of how power goes bad. For instance, he poignantly unfolds how many short-term missions trips we take as churches are infected with the idolatry of lifting ourselves up over the flourishing of life in others (p.76). He shows how even in the name of justice and mission we commit subtle but heinous acts idolatrous power that dehumanizes people. His descriptions of how true power come the way of Jesus in ordinary life, unnoticed, relationally. This is very very helpful. (p.78).

Power therefore is a gift from God in creation and can only be exercised as a gift. It is for the flourishing of our lives in God’s good creation. It is to be prized, and stewarded in ways that live unto God’s purposes. Crouch has accomplished something here in this book. The book is worth a read if you too have become resentful and resistant to all exercise of power and authority in your life.

Can One Exercise Power in Autonomy From God?

But there is an irony here in Crouch extolling power as a gift (the title of ch. 2 is “Power is a Gift”). The way the New Testament uses the word “gift: (charisma) implies we are never in possession of the gift. It is a gift out of the never-ending relation of faith (there are echos here of Milbank and his arguments with Derrida in his “Can a Gift Be Given?”). The whole gift section of Romans 12 is headed by the act of being in submission to God (Rom 12:1-2). Then out of this we are encouraged to take up our gifts (in leadership) “according to the measure of faith which God has assigned” each person (vs 3). We are to exercise these ‘authorities’ out of mutual service in mutual relation according to our dependence upon the grace of God. The bottom line is: power in God’s Kingdom is one based on faith and total dependence upon Jesus as Lord and King by the Holy Spirit. And it is boundaried by our giftedness. If we step out of what has been given by God through Jesus by the Spirit, we lose all power.

But sometimes while reading Andy Crouch’s book I got the nagging impression that this was a book intended to help me know and understand power so I could then have more confidence in using it and knowing how to use it (for  Christian ends and purposes). That if I can avoid idolatry, and injustice, if I can understand how power works through the “let there be” instead “make it so,” then power can be rehabilitated and I can too become a better steward of power. I can be a faithful user of power.

I suggest this is the temptation and the danger in Crouch’s Playing God. We might actually come away thinking we can “play God” all the while thinking we are not “playing God.” For me, the problem with Crouch’s account of power is that he does not speak directly enough to this issue: that any authority exercised in autonomy from God from a position of hierarchy (from above) is not and cannot be redemptive power (although it can be preservatory in purpose – which is a discussion for another time).  Any time we exercise power in autonomy from God as my own possession, we are in essence limited, and often headed for a disaster, a repeat of the fall. Surely idolatry and injustice will follow. But the issue is autonomy.

There is an authority that comes from God that we can never possess, only participate in. Through faith, in dependence upon God, we can become conduits of God’s work in His authority in the world.  Acts 1:8 says “and ye shall receive power” but it is only “when the Holy Spirit shall come upon you.” It is totally dependent upon one’s submission to and receiving of the Spirit.  But once we seek to possess it as our own whereby to exercise God’s authority as our own, that power becomes devoid of God’s redemptive power. At best it can preserve society (like a good police force), at worst it becomes distorted into vicious human coercion.

The real problem therefore of the garden of Eden in Gen 3 was the problem of Adam and Eve usurping God’s power as their own. Satan tempts Eve by saying “and you shall be like God” (Gen 3:5) Later God observes “Behold the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil …”(Gen 3:22). From hence, the mutuality of the garden has been lost and now man shall rule over his wife (Gen 3:16). Here we see power gone bad, the result of sin.

All this to say, Crouch’s book is good but Crouch’s book is dangerous. Some may read it and take it as a Christian user’s manual for power and then go out and use their power in a more benevolent way in their businesses or places of work and think they can redeem the world. It may lead us to think that once we get our understanding of power sorted out we can go out and better exercise it. It may lead us into the danger of thinking we can possess God’s good power. But there is a difference between preservatory power aligned with God in the sense of preserving God’s creation, and redemptive power, that power at work in and through Christ’s reign for the restoration, healing and renewal of God’s creation. It seems Crouch is often talking about preservatory power not redemptive. For me, this distinction in Crouch’s book would have been helpful. Without the distinction, the book may tempt us to confuse the two.

The Church

Ironically, there is only one place where redemptive power can originate like I have described above: the church. Here power (as charisma) is exercised always in faith and dependence upon the Lord who rules from the throne of the ascension (Eph 4:8-11). Here our gifts in Him are never exercised in hierarchy from a position of power over someone, but out of mutual submission, no one overstepping his/her bounds ( vs 7,11). Here is the model of power and authority Jesus is always trumpeting (Mark 10:41-45, Luke 22:25-27etc.) and Paul is ever displaying (1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12:3ff; Eph 4:7-16 etc). Here Jesus is Lord and we are participants in His power through the gifts? This then becomes the model for all to follow in the world.

Ironically, except for a few pages in (p. 270ff) Andy Crouch does not spend much time on the church. This is curious. Crouch is adamant about locating power in creation and this may be the problem (grounding his account in creation versus the church). To ground one’s view of power in creation offers up the temptation to think we can enter power as people in the world and use it for good outside of the redemptive processes God has released in the church through Jesus Christ. And so, again, we might walk away from Andy’s book believing I too can now exert power in the halls of worldly power and that power can be redeemed somehow by recognizing things like Andy talks about, idolatry, injustice. But I suggest this way of seeing power has gotten us evangelicals in big trouble before (read the Bush adminstration as evidence no. 1). Instead, we must ever submit to the power of God from within the practices of the church, within our gifts, in mutual submission, and only then bring this power of the lamb humbly and subversively into the world. I suggest this is how God will bring down strongholds. This is the power, the power of God released in and through the incarnation by the Holy Spirit that shall take over the world.

Close But Not Quite

When Andy Crouch talks about participating in God’s power (versus domination via God’s power), when he talks about power as a gift (versus possessing it), he is already giving a nod to everything I am saying above.  So I’m glad Andy Crouch has written this book. I see a chastening move within evangelical Protestantism towards the dangers of power and the wielding of it within the halls of nation-state, culture, politics and academy. It’s a strange thing happening post George Bush that I saw it even in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (not that he’s an evangelical but many evangelicals love him). Evangelicals are chastening their attitudes and postures towards assuming power in the world. They are discerning more carefully the claiming of Christ’s Lordship over every “square inch.” Just because Christ, the Sovereign Lord has cried “Mine!” does not mean we can assume lordship. Instead we shall inhabit humbly, engaging the powers boldly, discerning each situation for our participation, whether that mean support, resistance or withdrawal, allowing God in Christ through the Spirit to work for his redemption of the whole world. It just seems to me, that many of my evangelical brothers and sisters cannot take the final step: to give up the reins of culture at large and see rather the local church, in all its humility, as the center from which God shall display to the world where it is heading. Andy Crouch’s book still has a bit of that evangelicalism in it!  :)

What do you think?

P.S. I have another post coming on Crouch’s fine conversation starter of a book!


Posted in Books Reviews, Church and State, Missional Ecclesiology, Missional Leadership, Neo-Anabaptist, Post-Christendom
18 comments on “Can I Play God? The Temptation That Is In Andy Crouch’s Book
  1. Well, I’m offended by Crouch’s slander of Captain Picard. Of all the starship commanders, he’s the most mature and enlightened in his use of power, I think. More seriously, I think it’s an unfair contrast: Picard grants the proposed strategy (and the person who proposes it) the full force and standing of the Federation of Planets by “mak[ing] it so”; meanwhile, God acts alone in “let[ting] there be.” They’re not doing the same thing by way of these two contrasting declarations; Picard is fulfilling the role of his office (like the centurion in Matthew 8 who exercises authority while also being under authority), whereas God is literally imposing order on chaos. Just because God uses softer, more progressive language doesn’t mean God is being less authoritative or even tyrannical–in fact it could be argued that God is the tyrant in this contrast.

    I should mention at this point that I haven’t yet read Playing God.

    It strikes me that the creation account can be read as beginning and ending with dominion–God taking control of the chaos at the outset, God deputizing human beings to take control of their environment. At least that’s a way of reading it, and the way of reading it that ultimately excuses violent incursions into other people’s space and stuff. So I think you’re right to redirect the conversation about power from creation to the church: As God alone had all authority in the beginning, so Jesus inaugurates the church by reminding his disciples that “all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth”; the best the church can say, I think, is “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

  2. Tyler TUlly says:

    You wrote, “…that any authority exercised in autonomy from God from a position of hierarchy (from above) is not and cannot be redemptive power …”

    Spot on.

    There is no hierarchy in the Godhead. There is no hierarchy even in the manifestation of the Body of Christ–only that Christ is the head. The entire context of this Spiritually embodied organism presupposes unity, not disunity, wholeness, not hegemony.

    You have alluded to this much in the review, and I would attempt to say it clearly–unless the Church is primarily expressed on the local level, we will continue to converse about power dynamics, ecclesiology, etc. from a place of privilege and Evangelical Christendom. As long as “Church” is seen as a corporate model, as long as success is viewed according to the world’s standards (movement, growth in numbers, etc). I’m not saying any of these things are wrong, only that the focus is putting the cart before the horse. Yes?

  3. Chris Smith says:

    David, I think your reflections here are moving in the right direction. My only concern (and I hope to unpack this soon in more detail) is that we not confine ourselves to a narrow view of the church as solely a religious community, but rather see the (local) church community as a manifestation of the people of God in a particular place, who are seeking to bear witness to God’s reconciliation of ALL things. Thus, churches should be discerning communities that are engaged in things like food, housing, business, community planning, but to do so in an intentional and different way that bears witness (to the powers) of the reconciling work of God in Christ (Eph 3:9-10). What I appreciate about PLAYING GOD is that it points us in a more wholistic direction of the mission of God, and the work that we are called into as followers of Christ. But I absolutely agree that it’s missing the crucial piece of the church as the nexus where the Spirit of God guides us into this work in our particular places in such a way that BOTH our ends and our means bear witness to the reconciling wisdom of God in Christ.

  4. David Fitch says:

    So Chris,
    I think we all (Andy, you, me) agree on this one thing … that the work of God (and the manifestation of his power) is not to be sequestered in the four walls (whether imaginary or real) of the church. But where I think Andy and I differ, and where you and I cross paths but sometimes differ, is how indeed the authority of the Risen King is manifest in the world. I take literally (as you and Andy do as well) that Jesus sits at the right hand of the throne, the lamb who was slain, ushering in His Kingdom. Yet he rules as the lamb, and this rule, this power, this authority is manifest in the non violent suffering servanthood … and proclamation and inhabitation of the gospel. This happens whenever and wherever people submit to His reign so as to participate in His reign. But this reign,as God’s reign,as is evident throughout Old and New Testaments and brought to fruition in Jesus’ life death and resurrection, and then sent into the world, is always in submission to Christ, is always played out in mutual submission,and never owned or possessed as our own. This authority is best displayed in the church but of course bleeds into the world wherever Christians bring the practice of the gifts/servanthood/mutuality and submission of and to His reign into a place and context. Any other authority operating in autonomy from God is preservatory at best, raw coercion at worst.
    And so I want to hold a distinction between The power at work inthe world as preservatory, andthe power at work inthe world thgat is redemptive as it is manifested and brought into time and space through a people in submission to His powr and thereby able and willing to participate in His power. I think the lack of this distinction in Crouch’s book, and the lack of clarity on your part in this regard, is where we differ. And of course, this differing and the conversation that results is all good as we submit to one another to further God’s mission in the world.

  5. JR Rozko says:

    I see Andy wanting to make space for the idea/reality that as Christians, or more specifically, as Christians who exercise power and leadership in various cultural spheres (don’t overthink that word) that do not recognize the Lordship of Christ (forestry, banking, higher education, fashion, or car repair for example), it is possible to do so faithfully and fruitfully and that these efforts do in fact, exemplify, if not contribute to, God’s redemptive mission in the world.

    Is this a live possibility or does your statement, “To ground one’s view of power in creation offers up the temptation to think we can enter power as people in the world and use it for good outside of the redemptive processes God has released in the church through Jesus Christ,” negate that possibility?

    Asked another away, if we ground our view of power, not in creation, but in “re-creation” as the unique work and ways of God in and through Jesus, is there any “redemptive significance” to our professional cultural labors?

  6. David Fitch says:

    yes, there is possible “redemptive significance” to our professional cultural labors, but not by you or me exercising power “rightly” but by the making of space for His Lordship and reign to become manifest in the midst of. This happens via a practice of power that is deliberately counter the hierarchical autonomous patterns that are prototypical of the way power is engaged outside of the Kingdom. But I have seen power participated in the workplace when Christian people gather under His lordship to discern and address a situation… or even when they invite a non Christian into that space … transformation happens … in fact I can suggest whole companies can be transformed … Indeed we have see time and again business enterprises adopt Christian practices (such a Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership etc.)but once exercised for independent ends… they return to a preservatory even coercive function for ends that have more to do with profit than KIngdom (not that pofit alone is evil).
    In short, I want to resist the notion that power can be redemptive if we just learn how to do it right and take control and do it well. Instead, God is at work in the world, and as we engage locally, opening space for the Kingdom to manifest itself, God will work and we will particpate in that.


  7. erik says:

    the existence of power is not a problem in our society; sinful people (mis) using power is a problem in our society.

  8. Stuart Blythe says:

    Thanks for the blog post. I think that the question: ‘okay but where does power lie’ in this church, leadership, etc. exposes in concrete terms the theory and theology of ‘authority’ which is really at work. This notwithstanding one problem I have with the discussion (not having read the book) is what is being meant here in practice when people are talking about the exercise of power and authority. I am struggling to evaluate what is being said because I do not know what is being discussed ‘looks like’ in the flesh as enacted in Church or wherever.Some concrete examples of what people think is the ‘legitimate’ exercise of power and authority would I think help define and describe what people mean in terms that would allow a clearer evaluation and discernment regrading the positions being adopted.

    • David Fitch says:

      Stuart …
      This is the problem eh? The lack of imagination for a way of participation in God’s authority that is mutual,not hierarchical, submissional, out of a posture of servanthood, humility and presence … and to know that it is in this space in the world that God inhabit, and exhibit power and authority through his servants (and I might add ‘change the world’)

      • Seth says:

        Stuart and Fitch:
        If I may offer some concreteness to this discuss, here is a scenario from “inside” the literal walls of the church, but should be analogous for what happens (or doesn’t) when Jesus’ reign is manifested in other spheres.

        At a certain church of moderate size, there is a certain pastor with an issue. The issue: a “lay person” overseeing a certain ministry is not handling that ministry in a way consistent with the church’s “vision and values.” The lay person has previously resisted direction from others and is headstrong. The pastor has decided the lay person needs to be “dealt with”.

        How does the pastor exercise authority here? By appealing to his position as one with power in the church? By trumping the lay person’s headstrong-ness with sheer seniority? Some other way?

        How does the pastor’s positional/institutional authority interfere with his ability to be a conduit of Jesus’ Lordship over all things? Or does it?

        • David Fitch says:

          … the pastor goes to the person (he/she has decided needs to be dealt with) and in love, speaks the truth of his/her sin against him/her. S/He submits it to the person. Do you see what I’m seeing? If they agree, they confess, repent and reconcile and begin to live out of that repentance in mutuality. If there is no agreement … they bring a third person… same thing… if no agreement .. to the large giverning group … if no agreemnt .. town hall meeting … Because the issue has obviously become an issue that needs to delat with fior the future movement of the community into Mission … A consensus will emerge … and all wikll submit tothe Spirt at work in the community under teh Lordship of Christ …This simple practice of Matt 18 ..practiced in mutual submission … would allow God space to change the world if we would do it … but it starts with the pastor … who says .. the person .. “needs to be dealt with.”

          • Seth says:

            Yes. And the cultivation of the imagination for exercising Christ’s authority in this way begins with the leader/pastor exploring why or why not all of is a realistic posture.

            Because it seems to me that those who wield positional authority, at the end of the day, struggle to operate outside of that type of authority because any other way seems completely unrealistic.

  9. Stuart Blythe says:

    Dave and Seth

    I was not saying that I could not imagine alternative ways of exercising authority/power (is that what you thought Dave?) but that I needed to see/hear concrete examples to evaluate whether in practice that imagination was present in what was being discussed in conceptual terms. Seth gives such a concrete example for consideration.

    Some churches I know in my Baptist tradition here in Scotland have Matthew 18 written into their constitution. Interestingly it is often written in not as a guide for leaders but for the grievance of one member against another. On this in practice, two things: leaders through the nature of their position etc. do not seem to feel that they should act in this way because they are acting not as one member with a grievance against another but in their role as ‘leader’ as ‘representative’ of the body and with the power and authority inherent in the role; Second, despite this statement being in the constitution other structural factors in relation to Church life mean that this approach of mutual submission is not the nature of the culture that develops and hence the nature of the authority/power that is practiced.

    In the light of this it seems to me that Seth describes a context where structurally (in respect to established roles etc. and the perception of them) the situation by definition militates against alternative patterns being exercised in the way desired in a meaningful way.

    • Seth says:


      Your point that the structure militates against alternative ways of exercising authority is consistent with David’s main thesis, no? That we cannot be naive in regard to the forces at work in structures of power? That redemptive authority must look like humble, mutual submission in the Spirit under Jesus’ Lordship all the way through?

      And it seems to me that if we find ourselves in a context similar to the one I describe, it means that we have to be that much more aware of the way our “worldly position” can subvert the flow of Christ’s authority through us. It’s possible for authority to be exercised “meaningfully” in such a context, but those in power must be ever-ready to give it away – ever eager to abandon authority in favor of love – holding all things with open hands – ready to die the death of our false self.

  10. Evan Keller says:

    Like Aslan in Narnia, Jesus is loose in the world! The King is at work in His Kingdom – not confined to the structures of the Church. Andy rightly cites Him at work in events such as the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. Another example: the widespread reports of Muslims encountering Jesus in their dreams (who are hopefully then connected to a church body). Why do people insist that initiatives for the common good are explicitly sponsored/endorsed by a specific church? We ARE the Church! And we’ve been positively sent out into the world by our King: “As the Father sends me, so I send you.” And of course Christ’s work through us is redemptive – everything He does is redemptive. I contend that Jesus viewed His Kingdom as the overarching reality by which all things are measured, including His Church. Our loyalty is to Kingdom first, Church second. God advances His Kingdom, both through His Church and in spite of it.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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