A New Design for Relational Power


Karen & Ron Flowers
Directors, Department of Family
Ministries, General Conference

Theme: Healthy Christian relationships exhibit mutual caring, support, and respect for human equality and dignity. The gospel overcomes dominance and control in relationships through the principle of mutual submission to one another in Christ.
Theme Text: Philippians 2:1-4
Presentation Notes: Throughout the following outline, numbers in parentheses (1), (2), (3) will indicate illustrations, quotations and other material found in the section called Sermon Illumination that may be helpful in your sermon development and delivery.

The schoolyard see-saw can teach us a lot about life. One learns very quickly that he affects his partner’s ride and his partner affects his. Each adjusts his position to achieve balance and the riding friends glide rhythmically and comfortably on the see-saw. It becomes scary when individuals larger or heavier exploit one’s vulnerability by inappropriate use of their weight or by dismounting unexpectedly. The see-saw, that could bring so much joy, becomes a place of pain.

The Relational “Seesaw”

A close relationship with another family member, a friend, or fellow believer at church creates relationship linkages that may be compared to the experience on a see-saw. As each of us mounts the relational “see-saw,” our personal characteristics, such as temperament, emotional well-being and social status, combine to constitute the “weight” or personal power which we exert on our end. The way we use our weight affects our experience and our partner’s experience. As is true of childhood play on the seesaw, the ride feels most satisfying when there is a sense of balance and a pleasurable rhythm.

Hindrances to Relational Balance

It takes goodwill on the part of each child to achieve an enjoyable ride for both himself and his friend on a see-saw. Likewise individuals experience the most satisfying relationships when there is unconditional acceptance and warm regard for each other. “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). The absence of this spirit may make the relationship unsatisfying at best and, at worst, painful, perhaps even terrifying.

Selfishness. The sinfulness of humanity is often expressed in self-centered thoughts and actions. Preoccupied with themselves, self-absorbed people tend to be less sensitive to the feelings of others. The caring concern for the other that is so necessary for a good relationship is skewed by selfish attitudes.

Social status. Society tends to grant more social weight to some people than to others. For example, the wealthy enjoy more social weight than the poor, the employed more weight than the unemployed, the educated more than the uneducated, the physically attractive more than the unattractive, the talented more than the untalented. Custom often accords more social weight to parents than to their children, to men more than women, and to husbands more than wives. When those with this greater social weight are insensitive to their power in the relationship, or worse, take advantage of their power, abuse often results.

Adjustment efforts. Because people depend heavily on their families and close relationships, those who sense their power to be weaker will likely attempt to adjust as much as they can around the dominating people in their families or relationship system in order to protect themselves and sustain the relationship. Alternative expressions of power may appear in an attempt to balance the system. These adjustment efforts may be overt or covert, wise or unwise, and may occur in healthy or unhealthy ways. (1)

A biblical example. Jacob is an example of one who attempted to achieve greater power in his relationships (Genesis 27). As the firstborn, his twin, Esau, had important status. His interests and personality also endeared him to their father, Isaac. Furthermore, Esau personified what was then considered the ideal man-hairy, masculine features, adventurous, and a fearless hunter. He had two wives and sons. Jacob, on the other hand, was his mother Rebekah’s favorite. A single man, he helped with meals and other domestic duties. In contrast to his brother, he was a “smooth” man. Both Jacob and his mother schemed to increase Jacob’s power in the family, especially in the relationship with Esau. He took advantage of Esau’s impulsiveness to secure the birthright. He exploited Isaac’s old age impairments to win the patriarchal blessing of the firstborn. More honesty and openness in communication, a greater commitment to truthfulness, mutual sharing of feelings and a determination to resolve differences in ways that left each person feeling valued and important would have contributed to this family’s harmony and peace. As it was, the ill-conceived efforts of all to gain advantage over others resulted in great emotional distress, anger, conflict and alienation.

Scriptural Prescription for Relational Balance: Equality and Mutuality

The principles of equality and mutuality appear in Scripture as core characteristics of God’s ideal for balance in relationships.

The creation record. From creation, the two genders of humanity are presented as equals (Gen. 1:26-28). Their mutuality was evident in their sharing the image of God (vs. 26), receiving the same designation “man,” Hebrew-adam, (vss. 26, 27), participating together in the procreative blessing (vs. 28), and serving as co-regents with shared dominion over the earth (vs. 28).

The description of the curse. By viewing the results of sin, we learn what ought not to happen in relationships. The bible presents the results of sin as a rulership of one over the other (Genesis 3:16), a self-centered seeking of power in relationships with marriage partners (Genesis 3:16), with siblings (Gen. 4:2-8; 37:3-28), and with parents (Gen. 27). Because of the curse, the relational see-saw is out of balance. There is domination, disregard for the rules of equity, fairness and justice, the creation of situations where the partner is manipulated, exploited, and abused.

The gospel. The gospel seeks to rectify power imbalances. Christ broke down barriers which separated ethnic groups (Matt. 8:5-13), social classes (Matt. 20:20-28; Luke 19:2-10), men and women (Luke 10:42), children and parents (Matt. 19:13-15). The gospel eliminates the curse, it does not simply enable us to live more graciously with it.

It is not our job to perform the Curse more nicely, or in a more spiritual way than the rest of the world does. God has given us a new plan. It is our wonderful freedom to grow in relationships that carry out God’s plan. (VanVonderen, 1992, p. 23)

A New Design for Relational Power: Empowerment

Several important biblical concepts unfold the gospel design for relationships in which the sinful use of power is replaced with empowerment, the realization that we have strength and we can use it to help others. Our relationships as Christians flourish when these principles are adopted in our lives.

Equality and mutuality in Christ. The apostle Paul catalogs the areas of human difference that tend to divide the race: religious, ethnic, cultural, political, social status, economic, and gender (Gal. 3:28). He might have extended the list to include: family of origin, nationality, age, education, appearance, and temperament. The good news of the gospel is that Christ has triumphed over sin which causes individuals to assume superiority over one another (Eph. 2:14-16). He has brought us together in Himself. We now may approach one another in fundamentally different ways, as relatives in Him because of His redemptive work.

The model of Christ. Christ’s putting superior power aside is the model for Christian living (Phil. 2:3, 4). He did not find it necessary to cling to His power and position as a source of His identity. The gospel call is for us to receive this mind of Christ as our own (Phil. 2:5).

Ministry to one another. The apostles frequently present the practical side of caring and mutuality in Christ. The relational ties that bind us together are to receive a high priority:

  • Love one another (John 15:12).
  • Give preference to one another (Rom. 12:10).
  • Serve one another (Gal. 5:13).
  • Bear with one another (Eph. 4:2).
  • Forgive one another (Col. 3:13).
  • Comfort and edify one another (1 Thess. 5:11).

Empowerment. The gospel overturns the sinful, selfish, self-centered misuse of power and replaces it with empowerment. “Empowering is the process of helping another recognize strengths and potentials within, as well as encouraging and guiding the development of these qualities” (Balswick and Balswick, 1989, p. 28). The Christian approach is to constantly be looking for ways to strengthen and encourage and build up one’s relational partner. (2)

Counsel for the Aggressive and the Compliant

The Bible addresses both groups who are potentially on either end of the relational see-saw: 1) those who, for whatever reason, may possess an extra measure of power and 2) those who may acquiesce or be too compliant. Christ and the apostles were aware of entrenched social customs that shaped the lives of believers, customs that would change ever so slowly. Yet they carefully presented Christian principles in language befitting their time which their hearers would understand, confident that, under the guidance of the Spirit, believers would steadily grow into conformity to the will of God. Three great gospel principles appear to apply directly to our riding together on our relational “see-saws”:

1. The more powerful are called to serve. Jesus used the occasion of His disciples’ request for positions of power to set in sharp contrast the way of the gospel with common practices in society (Matt. 20:20-28). The One who came not to be served brought an end to misuse of power, control and domination in relationships, “Whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all” (vs. 26 NEB).

2. Passive, compliant individuals may grow stronger. The gospel intention is to “strengthen the weak hands and confirm the feeble knees” (Is. 35:3). Some find in the counsel to endure suffering (1 Peter 2:19-21) a reason to remain passive, compliant, and yielding, even if victimized by a powerful person. Their suffering, goes the reasoning, accomplishes a purpose, perhaps their own salvation or the salvation of their abusers.

The letter of 1 Peter does not teach that suffering abuse will save anyone. Atonement for sin has been accomplished by a merciful God through the sufferings of Christ. Submission to suffering for the Lord’s sake is not something to be sought. The apostle simply offers here a small consolation for his audience, mostly Christian slaves, who have no options. Their willingness to suffer may at least testify to the fact that they are part of the Lord’s people who shun the use of force, abuse, and control in relationships. When other resources and possibilities are available to help victims escape destructive relationships, the use of such options is not necessarily contrary to the spirit of 1 Peter.

3. All may submit to one another. The concept of submission to one another “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) serves as the foundational principle for all Christian relationships. This principle is radically different from other well-intentioned efforts to help people “even the score at home and gain respect” (“Karate: Effective Tool . . .?”, 1983). (3) Mutual submission introduces a totally different dynamic, a unique Christian dynamic, to relationships.

Mutual submission forms the backdrop for Paul’s discussion of three of the most unequal relationships of his day: wife-husband, child-parent, slave-master (Eph. 5:22-6:9). In each case, society gave enormous power to the second in the pair. Paul addresses the weaker side of the relationship first and places their particular submission in a Christian context. This, however, is followed by a directive to the one considered more powerful in society to also act in submissive ways. These directives must have astonished the believers of the first century:

  • Husbands-to love sacrificially as did Christ (Eph. 5:25).
  • Parents-to parent in ways that nurture children (6:4).
  • Masters-to be caring, knowing that God, who is Master all, knows no partiality (6:9). (4)


When we accept Jesus Christ as our Saviour, He calls us to relate to His other children as our relatives in Him. The power of the Holy Spirit enables believers to fellowship together in Christ, with a full appreciation of each other’s essential equality and personal worth. The gospel has terminated the abuse of power in relationships. Loving Him first and most of all, we no longer want to exercise authority, power and control in ways that dishonor Him or one of His children. Instead, His Spirit in our hearts replaces control and manipulation with the concept of empowerment, the use of our strengths and abilities to serve others, to lift up the fallen, and to enable the unable.

Let us determine by His grace to bring our relationships into greater harmony with His plan. Let us avail ourselves of tools and resources available to us to change where there is need for change and to stretch and grow. Let us seek to do His will more fully.

Sermon Illumination
One (1): John was a very forceful and dominating husband. He ordered his family about as if he were a military commander. When he said, “Jump,” family members asked, “How high?”as they leaped. His wife, Mary, however, had her own way of dealing with him. One day, when he was in a particular rush to go someplace with her, he had gone out to the car to wait, a non-verbal signal that he wished her to hurry. When she didn’t come as he had expected, he blew several sharp blasts on the horn. She heard the horn, but instead of going to the car, she went to the back of the house and leisurely inspected her rose garden, plucking a few weeds out and sniffing the fragrance of a few of the emerging blossoms. She made her way to the car in her own good time.
Two (2): Empowering is a biblical model for a use of power which is completely contrary to the common use of power in the family or in society at large. Empowering can be defined as the attempt to establish power in another person. Empowering does not necessarily involve yielding to the wishes of another person or giving up one’s own power to someone else. Rather, empowering is the active, intentional process of enabling another person to acquire power. The person who is empowered has gained power because of the encouraging behavior of the other.

Empowering is the process of helping another recognize strengths and potentials within, as well as encouraging and guiding the development of these qualities. It is the affirmation of another’s ability to learn and grow and become all that he or she can be. It may require that the empowerer be willing to step back and allow the empowered to learn by doing and not by depending. The empowerer must respect the uniqueness of those being empowered and see strength in their individual ways to be competent. Empowering does not involve controlling or enforcing a certain way of doing and being. It is, rather, a reciprocal process in which empowering takes place between people in mutually enhancing ways. . . .

The power given by Jesus is power of a personal order-power which is mediated to the powerless. To us in our sinful and powerless condition God gives the ability to become children of God. This is the supreme example of human empowering. Jesus redefined power by his teaching and by his relating to others as a servant. Jesus rejected the use of power to control others, and instead affirmed the use of power to serve others, to lift up the fallen, to forgive the guilty, to encourage responsibility and maturity in the weak, and to enable the unable. (Balswick and Balswick, 1989, pp. 28, 29)

Three (3): From our Christian perspective, a faulty understanding of how to achieve equal power in relationships is illustrated by the following experience:

Karate training allows abused wives to even the score at home and gain respect without permanently injuring their mates, suggests psychiatrist Robert Stolberg, M.D. . . . Stolberg noted the case of a New York City couple who came to him; the wife was periodically beaten by her husband. During consultation, the couple told Stolberg that they loved each other and wanted to stay together. While the husband promised never to abuse his wife again, this promise was not kept.

Stolberg then sent Gloria (not her real name) for training in karate. In just under six months, Stolberg and her instructor felt that she was ready to use her skills to stop her husband’s violence. At the beginning of the next violent episode, Gloria pinned her husband to the floor and held him down for an hour. His behavior was what she had been told to expect. “He raged, he reasoned, then pleaded and finally wept in surrender.” He never beat her again. (“Karate: Effective Tool for Battered Women?,” 1983)

Four (4): The letter of Paul to Philemon illustrates the principle of mutual submission at work in the world of the first century. Paul sent Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, which was in accordance with law and social convention. However, to Philemon, Paul gave the unique, radical Christian message to receive him “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother . . . in the Lord” (Philemon 16).


Balswick, J. O., & Balswick, J. K. (1989). The family: A Christian perspective on the contemporary home . Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Karate: Effective Tool for Battered Women? (1983, September 5). Marriage and Divorce Today , 9 (5), 76-77.

VanVonderen, J. (1992). Families where grace is in place . Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

Reprinted from Karen & Ron Flowers, Peace and Healing: Making Homes Abuse Free. Silver Spring, MD: Department of Family Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1997.