About a month ago I preached a sermon on the concept of the principalities and powers, taking Colossians 2:6–15 as my text. When I’m given the opportunity to preach on whatever I want, I usually explore questions I have. The main question that led me to look at the principalities and powers is, “Why do groups and systems behave the way they do, and why is it so hard to change?”
I think of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which at the time was one of the most Christian countries in Africa. I think of Enron, whose CEO, Ken Lay, was a leader in his church, and yet he and others forged a culture of systematic deception. I also think of Congress, where only 9 percent of people approve of the job they are doing. And yet when we vote in new people, nothing seems to change. The culture persists, even despite efforts to move in a different direction.
The usual Christian answer to this question is sin. We humans have rebelled against our Creator and gone our own way, and we suffer the consequences of living out of step from the way we were meant to. But there’s more to it than that. I’m tempted to sin in certain ways as an individual, but groups and societies can be tempted to sin in persistent ways. Racism looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. Gun violence looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. The New Testament sheds light on this question with what the apostle Paul calls the “principalities and powers.”
In Colossians, for example, Paul is fighting against a system of thought that included elements of Judaism but also magic and interest in a variety of spiritual forces. It may not seem like this could apply to the secular West, but even here you still hear people talk about the universe telling them things or guiding them. Even for those who are spiritual but not religious, there seems to be a sense that there are larger forces at work in our lives.
What are the powers?
There is a continuum of thought among Christians as to what the powers are. On the one end, you have personal demons spitting sulphur. If you grew up in church in the ’90s like I did and read any Frank Peretti novels, that is the idea. On the other end, you have impersonal social and cultural forces, structures, and institutions. You tend to find this in more theologically liberal writers like Walter Wink.
There is some truth in both. The first gets right that the powers are supernatural and greater than human, but can only focus on how they work on individuals. The second gets right that the Bible seems to talk about them differently than angels and demons, and they affect more than individuals. But this end of the spectrum tends to minimize or forget that these really are supernatural forces, not merely a term for the way human institutions behave.
Here’s what we can learn from a few texts about the principalities and powers:
They were created good. They did not always behave the way they do now. Just as there was a fall in the human realm, there was also a kind of fall in the spiritual realm. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers (archē) or authorities (exousia); all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).
They function in human political and religious spheres. Elsewhere, Paul writes that the powers were at work in Christ’s crucifixion. It wasn’t just Pilate, Herod, and the crowd. There were spiritual forces working behind them that wanted Christ put to death: “We declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers (archōn) of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).
They have been disarmed but not destroyed. In his death and resurrection Christ has plundered the powers, disarming them and leading them in a victory parade: “Having disarmed the powers (archē) and authorities (exousia), he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15).
They are subject to Christ. Because of the system of thought Paul is fighting against in Colossians, he repeatedly stresses Christ’s supremacy over all other spiritual powers. “In Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power (archē) and authority (exousia)” (Col 2:10).
Our struggle is against them. Colossians and Ephesians both mention the powers several times. The two cities were relatively close together, and it seems like many of the cultural forces that were at work in one were also at work in the other. Toward the end of Ephesians Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers (archē), against the authorities (exousia), against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). This is important. If we forget this, we are likely to continue to get really angry at our fellow image-bearing humans and even unintentionally contribute to evil ourselves.
The church’s job is to make manifest to them God’s wisdom. Ephesians again: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers (archē) and authorities (exousia) in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10–11). This is the wisdom of the cross and resurrection.
David Garland, in his commentary on Colossians, sums it up well: “The stoicheia, powers, and authorities come in all sorts of guises, and in different cultures they receive different names and definitions. But they share a common characteristic in that humans take them to be unrelenting forces that suppress us and squelch our happiness. More important, humans open themselves up to their power through sin and ignorance. But to those who are in Christ, these forces, powers, and authorities are completely impotent.”
Upon hearing about these powers, some people may become obsessed with classifying and resisting them, but that’s never the point when the New Testament talks about the powers. The point is if we rebel against God and take matters into our own hands, we don’t become free individuals. We submit ourselves to the powers. We don’t have to know exactly what they are. But we should be able to recognize them at work.
How do we recognize the powers at work?
In my reading on this subject in preparation for the sermon, I found many authors gave examples of things that can function as powers: Government is necessary, but it may become tyrannical. Universities can become places of indoctrination rather than education. Companies can begin to serve the greed of a few instead of serving their customers or helping their employees flourish. Money is useful for facilitating exchange, but it can exert control. Communication can function as propaganda and obscure the truth. Tradition may devolve into traditionalism.
It seems almost anything can function as a power. But as I read through these examples, a few traits emerged over and over.
- The powers tend to cheapen human life. Technology is not bad, but when it divides us and takes priority over people it functions as a power. Family, kinship, tribe are not bad, but they may turn into racism and xenophobia in which we see other people as subhuman. I even saw numbering called a power. One example of this comes from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s excellent Vietnam War documentary, in which you hear several veterans talk about “the body count.” Counting dead bodies was the only measure they had for determining how successful they were. Over time this tempted them to exaggerate, and it blinded them to the larger reality of war. Numbering can become a power when the only thing that matters is what can be measured and quantified.
- The powers ignore sin and give us false ways of fixing things. In politics we tend to think a regime change will fix things, that seizing the levers of power will fix things, but throughout history the oppressed tend to turn into oppressors. In Colossae Paul’s opponents gave a list of things you had to do to get right with God, but they misunderstood who Christ was and what he had done. Without understanding sin, we adopt false goalposts, false hopes, while all the time we are still enslaved by the powers.
- The powers cause frustration, fear, and despair. When we want to do the right thing but don’t think we can, the powers are at work. When we’re afraid that what we do doesn’t matter, the powers are at work. The powers want us to feel despair and helplessness, like going along with evil is our only choice. Pay attention to those feelings, because they may be an indication that the powers are active.
How do we struggle against the powers?
In Ephesians 6, Paul’s famous passage about putting on the armor of God is all about resisting the powers. But my sermon was based in Colossians, so I came up with a few other things.
Remember the supremacy of Christ. Powers tell us we can move on past the cross, or need to have Christ plus something else to be accepted by God. So Paul told the Colossians by being united to Christ, they’re no longer subject to the powers. By submitting to the powers, Christ exposed them and disarmed them. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, “God still upholds the structures; without them the world would collapse and human life would be unthinkable. But the structures lose their pretended absoluteness. Nothing now is absolute except God as he is known in Jesus Christ; everything else is relativized.” We don’t need to fear powers. The worst has already happened, and Christ won.
Remember that Christ works through weakness: the cross’s and our own. Marva Dawn writes in Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, her book on the powers, “Our churches act as fallen powers when they forget the cross at their center.” The powers tell us the cross’s weakness is shameful, that it’s better to be strong. When we believe that, we’re more liable to be deceived by charismatic personalities, money, and the need to keep secrets to protect our institution. But it is by weakness that Christ disarmed the powers and put them on display for what they really are, and his church disarms the powers in the same way. Newbigin writes that the Christians conquered the powers behind the Roman Empire not by seizing power but by kneeling in the Colosseum and praying for the emperor in Jesus’ name.
Remember to pray. Speaking of prayer, it’s crucial when discerning and fighting the powers. In Colossians 4:2 Paul says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” It’s easy, even for Christians, to vacillate between two poles: we think we can handle life through our own ingenuity, or we think we’re at the mercy of impersonal forces. Sometimes we feel both these things in the same day. Both times we need prayer.
Life is complex—too complex for us to understand everything on our own. There are unseen forces that are hostile to us. We can’t discern and defeat these fallen powers on our own, but in prayer we have access to one who has.