The Fallen Powers: Worlds in Collision, Pt 1

Where do wars and fights come from among you?
Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?
You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain.
You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.
You ask and do not receive,
because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.
James 4:1-3

"The tragic events of September 11 cannot be fully understood apart from the dynamics of empire… empires are built on system centralizations of power and secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control. Moreover, empires are religiously legitimated by powerful myths that are rooted in foundational assumptions. So what happened on September 11? In a stroke of perverse, counterimperial genius, America was attacked at the site of its socioeconomic and military control… These institutions are at the heart of the powerful myth that legitimates the empire identified with America. As Benjamin Barber puts it, this was an "astonishing assault on the temple of free enterprise in New York City and the cathedral of American military might in Washington, D.C."

"Clearly American political leaders understood that the battle at hand was of mythical proportions. The attack, [Bush] said, was an attack on "freedom" which was intended to inflict chaos on the nation but he was here to tell us that America was still in control. The president was in the White House, government services would be reopened in the morning, and, most important, "America is open for business."

"America is open for business? Wasn't that a rather callous and irrelevant comment under the circumstances? Not at all. You see, "America is open for business" means forces of chaos will not triumph because the forces of salvation are stronger. And as we have seen, in this myth salvation is found in an ever-expanding global economy. If America is still "open for business," then freedom still reigns! It is not surprising then, that … the highest patriotic duty of the American population was to go out and consume. We must not let the terrorists have the sweet victory of destroying our economy, our very way of life. Spend your money fly on airplanes and take the kids to Disneyland! This was the moral admonition of the empire."

Walsh and Keesmaat, "Colossians Remixed," Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004. p.35-36

Over the past few weeks I have been trying to weave together a series of threads. Those threads are Paul's concept of "the fallen powers" (stoichea) in Galatians and Colossians, our broken search for significance through possessions or personalities, and our consumer culture.

At the heart of our culture is consumption. The myth of progress can only be supported in a culture where everything is reduced to a commodity. The acquisition of wealth drives our culture.

So much is this true, and so strongly reinforced both inside and outside the church by a huge plurality of voices, that most of us connect our sense of personal worth to our material wealth.. to "success" defined in economic and social terms. When I say "most of us," it is the rare person indeed who is completely free of this tendency, completely grounded in the love of Christ, "not I who live but Christ who lives in me." The greater our wealth, and to some extent the greater our education (climbing the social ladder), the greater our status. We define ourselves not by what we are, but by what we own or can acquire. We connect the very core of our identity to THINGS.

No wonder we are insecure! And one of the most negative outcomes is that to the extent we are caught in this trap, we rate those around us on the same scale. We measure our neighbors by their wealth, education and social standing. Not only is this sinful, it is oppressive. Not only is it oppressive, it reinforces a false scale of measuring worth.

The connection that we don't always make is made by Isaiah: any time we measure our worth by a created thing we embrace a lie. We distort our true value, and we receive in our psyche and in our spirit a false image. To use a very old and out of favor word.. we partake in that esoteric world of idolatry.

Now this may sound rather academic. But if there are no bells going off in your head.. if there is nothing in your spirit that is calling out "DANGER WILL CARTER" then I suggest that you are not really hearing all this. We are all so immersed in culture.. and so distant from the truth.. that it can be really, really difficult to get a sense of the meaning and implications of all this. Stick with me a bit longer and I'll try to make it clearer.

We become what we worship.

Consider for a moment the words we use to describe the beauty and perfection of the Lord. He is HOLY. He is lovely. He is LOVE. He is transcendent above creation. He is the CREATOR. He is FATHER. He is GOD the LORD the ALMIGHTY. All these words point to a reality beyond our experience. Yet, if we have been touched by His Spirit, if we have fallen in love with Him, we have tasted, we have begun to see, and we KNOW that we KNOW that He alone is worthy of worship. He alone is worthy of imitation. We want to be like him.

But we become what we worship. We distort that original image when we take worth from anything other than Christ. Isaiah writes,

Those who make an image, all of them are useless,
And their precious things shall not profit..
They shall neither see nor know, that they may be ashamed.
Who would form a god or mold an image that profits him nothing?

And the Psalmist declares, "Those who make them are like them.." (115:8)

When we look in the mirror, the only safe mirror is that of Christ. Any other mirror reflects a false image which gives us a false valuation. We are created in the image of God.

Dr. Houston of Regent College recently commented that the great struggle of our time is the struggle of identity. Who am I? This question can only be answered in relation to the Creator, and in relation to those whose identity is founded in Him. The more we attempt to find that answer in the creation, the more lost we become. And the more lost we become, the greater is the darkness around us (see Ro.1).

How can we not be competing with those around us if we are caught up in trying to establish our own place on the social ladder? There can be only one god.. it is either God the LORD or it is us. Henri Nouwen writes that,

To die to our neighbours is to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus become compassionate. Compassion can never co-exist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other. The Way of the Heart

We can't assist anyone else in finding the truth of identity when we are competing with them for worth. Instead, we will try to make ourselves look good at their expense. As Bruce Cockburn sang many years ago,

Can it be so hard?
To love yourself without thinking
Someone else has a lower card?
"Free to Be"

If our identity is not grounded in Christ and hidden in God, then we are not reflecting His image. Instead, we are competing with those around us for worth. We can't love those with whom we are in competition for a limited amount of value.

Our True Worth

All I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God,
whose wheel the pitcher shaped.
RB Browning, "Rabbi Ben Ezra"

What are you worth to God? Whose child are you?

We all know the answers to these questions. The problem is few of us believe and receive the answer. Instead, we believe the lies that are told to us hundreds of times every day in words and pictures. The lie generally states, "You won't be happy unless you possess this thing or this person, or unless you look like this person." This is one of the better arguments for limiting exposure to mass media.

The impact of all this, however, is the truly scary part. We have Jesus telling us who we are .. and we have other voices telling us that we aren't really anybody unless we have a perfect body, a perfect mate, a perfect family, a perfect home, and a pair of matching BMWs in the driveway. If we believe that lie and pursue that lifestyle we will never be content, and by our actions we will encourage our neighbors to pursue the same unhappiness.

If that were the only effect of believing the lie, it would be bad enough. But another effect is that we import this ethos and class system into the body of Christ. We give power and privilege to those who have worldly power and privilege, or worldly knowledge and stature, instead of listening to the voice of the Lord and discerning His call (see also the epistle of James).

I know some very greatly gifted people who are quite poor. Most of them struggle with a sense of worth because they are measuring themselves and God's approval by their economic status. They root their identity partly in Jesus, and partly in consumer culture. As a result, their faith is crippled and they struggle to reach foward to achieve their destiny in Christ. They don't give to the kingdom all they can give, and sometimes what they attempt to give is not received because they aren't successful in worldly terms.

Where there are problems, there are solutions. But the solution for this problem is as deep as culture and as wide as a church that is completely immersed in it.

I can't help but think that there are no individual solutions to the problem. There will only be community and covenanted solutions. This destination is only likely to be achieved by groups of people. So long as the people we are intimately connected with are intimately rooted in the Empire, we won't get very far in establishing a new ethos. We need new communities to model a new way of being in the world in order for individual Christians to get free of the worldly system.

But there is hope, because..

Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh.
Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh,
now we know Him thus no longer.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,
they are a new creation;
old things have passed away;
all things have become new!
II Cor. 5

Yet.. "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit" says the Lord. The way forward is not one of strength but of weakness... of repentance and crying out to God to heal me... of putting myself in proper relation to the Creator in an attitude of worship. In the place of worship, in relation to Him, we discover our true identity. Worship is a furnace of transformation because it is there we learn to know Him who is beyond our knowing.

It is difficult to convey in words what can only be taught by the Spirit. Much learning that is transformational is simply beyond propositions to express. It must be experienced to be known. The biblical word for knowledge in "Adam knew his wife and she conceived" means more than "they read a book together." What is born of the Spirit, is Spirit..

So it is that when we come into the Presence of God we are lifted to a higher level of knowing, and our inner self is renewed in His image. This is the thrust of Paul's teaching in II Cor. 3. "Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord we are transformed..." May the Lord grace us with His Presence and beauty.

Founding Personal Identity on Transcendence

"Most of us are living, to some degree, as addicted persons, striving anxiously after power and money and prestige and relevance, trapped in the turbulence of wanting more. These addictions are so subtle for most of us that we have the illusion of being free people when in actuality we are immersed in society's expectations... We are addicted to having more and more comfort, which society says we deserve.

"Our culture promotes a constant filling up, but our disciplines will draw us toward greater emptiness, so that we can be better prepared for obedience and, ultimately, for finding our place in God's plan - finding true relevance." Interview with Gordon Cosby in "Cutting Edge" magazine, 2002

"He who loses his life for My sake, will find it."

Walter Brueggemann in "The Prophetic Imagination" remarks that what we see in western culture is a religion of immanence, always a feature of a civil and static religion. The other two features are the economics of affluence and the politics of oppression.

The social purpose of a really transcendent God is "to have a court of appeal against the highest courts and orders of society around us…" In terms of the economics of affluence, you don't want people delaying gratification in favor of some future hope, you want them seeking pleasure in the eternal now. The spiritual transaction is equally vital.. we feed on the empty calories of pleasure and starve inwardly, or we feed on Jesus.. nurturing our soul.. only as we partake of Him directly through His Spirit.

Apart from that transaction, the choice of comfort NOW is all too attractive. The result of immersion in creature comfort and amusement is that "in place of passion comes satiation." Brueggemann argues that one of the reasons we lose passion is precisely due to our success at achieving comfort and security. He states that, "Passion as the capacity and readiness to care and suffer, to die and to feel, is the enemy of imperial reality."

Stoichea: Elementary Principles and Idolatry

In the fourth chapter of Galatians Paul writes to the believers talking about sonship in Christ. He states that when the heir is a child, he is the same as a slave, even though he actually owns everything. That sounds much like the state of most believers. We have "all things" in Christ, but we live as paupers. We have "all authority," but we do not walk in it.

But when the heir is adopted, he is no longer under guardians. Instead, he receives authority over all that is rightfully his. This is a bit confusing at first. How can an "heir" be "adopted?"

In the culture of the first century when the natural son of a father came of age, there was a ceremony to mark his transition to adulthood. There was never a question of not being a son, and then being adopted into the family. The transition was from not having authority and responsibility, to having that authority. A ring was often placed on the finger which had the stamp of the family, and could be used to seal legal documents. The "heir" now had legal authority to execute the will of the father.

As Paul continues his discussion, he warns that there is a danger. Even once becoming heirs and having been adopted by God, even AFTER RECEIVING LEGAL AUTHORITY to act on behalf of the Father, we may turn back to the weak and worthless elemental things (v.9). Paul points out that this is a return to slavery.

The word Paul uses that is translated "elemental things" is "stoichea," elsewhere translated "elementary principles." Notice that what the Galatians are doing is "observing days and months and seasons and years." They are returning to a religious structure of feasts and fasts and generally performance oriented Christianity.

In the second chapter of Colossians Paul warns that if we submit to the elementary principles of the world's religion, we are not "holding fast to the Head." To be sure, "these are matters which have the appearance of wisdom," but they are "a mere shadow of what is to come."

In fact, Christ "disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public display of them, having triumphed over them" (v.15).

What is Paul talking about here? How do "elementary principles" connect to "disarming rulers and authorities?" How does submitting to rules and structures put us in danger of not holding fast to Christ?

In order to answer this question we need to consider a parallel passage in Galatians. In the fourth chapter Paul talks about the heart of religion in rites and rituals, "observing days and months and seasons and years." In doing so we are turning back "to the weak and worthless elemental things," (v.9) and slavery to those things "which by nature are no gods" (v.8).

We were all once enslaved to those false gods. They have real power within the fallen world system, since they themselves support it. They have authority and rule in this world because they were cast down to this world. The "stoichea" are fallen demonic authorities. Satan is behind religion, which we thought was just man made methods of staying in control. If only it were so simple.

When Christians revert to methods of control or submit to man-made structures, they are actually playing with demonic authority. Any structure which does not submit or line up to the obedience of Christ is in danger of being subverted by the enemy and perverting God's kingdom purposes.

Let’s face it, very few believers walk in the revelation and expression of the truth of their identity in Christ. Many spend most of their effort trying to believe they really are loved, called and commissioned. It is at that point that the real warfare begins. And it is at that point that we need to look more deeply at the problem.

"Stoichea" in the Church system

The crux of the issue is that most churches give a double message in this area. While the words express one message, the structure expresses another. Essentially our WORDS say,

"You are loved. You are called and commissioned. You have authority. You are seated with Christ in the heavenlies. You are appointed to bear fruit. You are a bearer of the words and wisdom of God. You have been anointed to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and cast out devils." Incredibly, this is the thrust of Paul's message in Galatians 4, before he points out the dangers of the world system.

But while the church also carries this message in words, the structure tells us,

"Sit there and listen. We’ll tell you what to do and when. But we don’t have much for you to do. We pay others to do it for you. You aren't really qualified to carry the gospel of the kingdom. Mostly we want you to sit on your hands and listen. Oh.. and pull out your wallet after the meeting to pay others to do the work for you and keep you in your place."

Which message will be heard? We tell people that they have authority, and we may release them to help with a church program, but we don’t actually send believers into the world as missionaries. We live in far too dualistic a frame for such an expression, where "ministry" is defined primarily as part of the gathering, and reserved for the anointed few. David Fitzpatrick comments,

“We must release, not possess them. The church is filled with frustrated men and women whom leaders will not release. They are kept ever so subtly in emotional bondage through emotional soul ties or a maze of responsibilities. The call on their lives is kept dormant within their souls because they are constantly forced to focus on the various, unending dreams of their leaders. We need to realize one of the most subtle ways to possess those entrusted to our leadership is to keep them continually focused on our goals.” (Issues of the Heart – Let My People Go. (Thompson Station, Tennessee: Innercourt, October, 1992), Pg. 74.

"For freedom Christ set us free!" Galatians 5:1

We release people to help attain OUR vision, but we don't find out what THEIR vision and callings are about. We restrict participation in ministry to the few, sending a powerful message about trust and adequacy. "The medium is the message," and event centered communities are already divorced from life.

If we as leaders don't believe in the Holy Spirit's leadership and gifting of all His people, why should God's people believe it? If we fear to release what God is doing, we are actually releasing a fear in God's people. We have come under the elementary principles of the world, and are in a new slavery, not holding fast to the Head.

The message of the incarnation is different. Jesus was the message, and He lived His life in the world among lost men and women. He not only spoke words into our world, He entered it. He lived and modeled the message. He was filled "with grace and truth." He "gave gifts to men." He "gave [them] authority…" Shouldn’t we incarnate that message, not only in the world, but in the church? If we do not, we are failing to honor the work that Jesus died to accomplish.

Revelation must be experienced, not only heard. Revelation is only known when we we walk it out. As one Rabbi put it,

"A "zaddik" (a righteous person) said about the rabbis who "speak Torah" (ie. who interpret the Scripture for others) "What is the sense of their speaking Torah? Man should act in such a way that all his behavior is a Torah, and he himself is a Torah." At another time it is said, "THe aim of the wise man is to make himself into a perfect teaching." Martin Buber

Believers will not believe they have authority until we create the space where they can walk it out. Authority must be actualized – take flesh in our lives – we must experience it.

In "The Shaping of Things to Come" the authors open the ninth chapter by rehearsing the story of "Chicken Run:"

"In a tragic scene, she [Ginger] is trying to share her vision and stir up another escape attempt when she realizes that most of her fellow hens have no concept of freedom. For them, this is the way it has always been. Why try and change it, when, as one hapless chicken claims, "This is a chicken's lot -- to lay eggs then die." Ginger is a real hero because she refuses to give in to the prevailing consciousness of the prison camp. She's a prophet and visionary and a darn good leader. At risk of her life and by enduring incarceration and suffering she eventually succeeds in organizing the most daring escape by building the most extraordinary flying machine... Without being too dramatic, this is precisely what is needed for missional leaders and radical disciples who know that the urgency of the day requires a significant shift from the predominant image of "church." p.146, Frost and Hirsch

Closing Thoughts, More Questions

I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees You,
Therefore I abhor msyelf,
And repent in dust and ashes.
Job 42:5,6

God changes us by reforming our identity.

When we discover our true identity in the heart of the Father, and reflected in the eyes of the transformed community, our perspective on all of life is reformed.

Several years ago I went out with some friends to an orchard to pick apples. The orchard was unharvested, and the trees were moderate in size and loaded with fruit.

I was tired after a busy week, but the scent of apples and the beauty of the day renewed me. As the kids gamboled about and the boxes became full, I wandered up the hillside to have a look around. From the crest of the hill I saw the setting of the orchard in the community, and out to the larger area around. I saw the setting of our own home down below, and of the orchard in relation to other pockets of houses and other orchards. The beauty and silence of the day were overwhelming. The fragrance of ripened fruit still filled the air. I was stunned by God's provision for us, setting us in the richness of bounty, and providing for us from the fertility of the land. I felt very small, and very blessed. From the hill top, my perspective changed.

We are immersed in a sea of unfaith. We are immersed in materialism and gnosticism. We are immersed in the ocean of individualism.

Our culture is based on consumption. Everything is assigned a value for the purpose of commodification.

We measure our worth by what we possess.

The basis of our value is our god. We worship mammon. Therefore, wealth roots our identity and provides us with only a false god, and a distorted mirror of our true value.

We feel worthless and powerless because we are what we worship. We become nothing. Satan wins not by outright terrorism but by reducing our effort and our identity to nothingness. We cannot enjoy life and peace from this place, but only find ourselves striving to catch what can never be attained. No wonder we have no peace! In their targum on Colossians, Walsh and Keesmaat write,

"Your hope is not the cheap buoyant optimism of global capitalism with its cybernetic computer gods and self-confident scientific discovery, all serving the predatory idolatry of economism. You know that these are gods with an insatiable desire for child sacrifice. That is why your hope is not the shallow optimism of the "Long Boom" of increased prosperity. Such optimism is but a cheap imitation of hope. Real hope-the kind of hope that gives you the audacity to resist the commodification of your lives and engenders the possibility of an alternative imagination-is no human achievement; it is a divine gift. This hope isn't extinguished by living in "the future of a shattered past," precisely because it is a hope rooted in a story of kept promises, even at the cost of death.

"You didn't get this hope from cable television, and you didn't find it on the Net. This hope walked into your life, hollering itself hoarse out on the streets, in the classroom, down at the pub and in the public square, when you first heard the good news of whole life restoration in Christ. This gospel is the Word of truth-it is the life-giving, creation-calling, covenant-making, always faithful servant Word that takes flesh in Jesus, who is the truth. "

I believe that we have to find solutions that are anchored in flesh. The incarnation impacted our world because it was "of the world," not merely a spiritual transaction in the heavenlies. I believe one of the things we must do is reshape our social and economic lives in faithful communities. It is only as the world sees a transformed WAY OF LIFE lived out among us that they will believe that WE believe that our value is anchored outside this world.

I believe the Lord will call many to forms of intentional community. Some groups may consider cohousing options; others may even "hold all things in common." It may be the only way some of us will break free of the things of this world. It would also be one way to care for those who have limited economic means. (See this article by Ron McKenzie oncommunity and fragmentation for some thoughts on this subject).

Ask the Lord to reveal to you your true self. Ask Him to renew your mind, and to transform your perspective. Ask the Teacher to speak Truth to your soul. Ask Him what kind of discipline will help you reshape your life in this world.

May the Lord set His people free. May He bring us life in fulness.

Go to Part 2: Relearning Worship

For further thought, visit the forums at Mustard Seed Associates.


i Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004. p.35-36
ii Ibid., p.29
iii See also Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be. New York, NT: Harper and Row, 1976.
iv Interview with Gordon Cosby in "Cutting Edge" magazine, 2002. Jeff Bailey
v Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1997
vi David Fitzpatrick, Issues of the Heart - Let My People Go. Thompson Station, Tennessee: Innercourt, October, 1992. Pg. 74.
vii Leonard Hjalmarson, Beyond the Event Centered Community. From Spring, 2004.
viii Frost, Michael and Hirsch, Alan. The Shaping of Things to Come. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub. 2003. p.146
ix Ibid., p.39
x See Mustard Seed Associates at MSA

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