The idolatry of power could manifest itself in a readily apparent form: an unhealthy lust for recognition and status, a greed for money and control which manifests itself in ruthless pragmatism, and an obvious manipulation of others for the sake of reaching some higher rank in society. There is, however, a subtler manifestation of this idolatry in the form of glorifying self-competency.
This form of manifestation rears its ugly head when an individual feels he must show himself to be competent in every area in which he is engaged. Because this is so, the individual will see that the only preferable option in life is to have a unilateral sense of control over his work or his family or both. He will be jealous for his own position and leadership, and will be reluctant to share responsibilities with others. He will have a hard time granting compliments to others and empowering them with trust and respect. He will have a nervous itch to dominate roles, and his first instinct when a certain need arises in a particular area would be to exercise his initiative to master that area, rather than to seek help. The thought of depending upon another person scares him to death because he thinks that this communicates weakness, and fears that things would not be done his way.
A lesson from Moses
In Numbers 11 Moses is told to gather elders to help him lead the grumbling nation of Israel. Upon their election, the Spirit rested upon them, and immediately a young man, along with Joshua (who was also described as one who followed Moses from youth) were jealous for Moses’s sake, imploring upon him to stop these newly appointed leaders from taking on their new prophetic role.
Moses’s response is worth noting:
But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord‘s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” – Numbers 11:29
Moses’s response was one of rebuke and humility. If we were in Moses’s position surely, we might think, that we would have responded just the way he did. But think again. Moses had been seen, by many, as the man of the show. It was through Moses that God spoke. It was through Moses that God had defeated Pharaoh, the people surely would have thought. The youth, as noted by the text, looked up to Moses to the point of being jealous for his sake when other leaders were appointed by God. Why? Because with other elders (seventy of them) in town, Moses would no longer be seen under a spotlight. He would merely be another leader among many, and his status as the unique prophet of God would, in the eyes of these young men, be compromised perhaps to the point of insignificance. Perhaps, also, they thought that Israel was great because they had Moses.
This still shows itself in our churches and in ourselves. It occurs when a pastor feels as though his personhood is threatened when another pastor arrives in town with greater oratory skills than himself. It occurs when a worship leader sees the worship set of the church next door as something he needs to outdo. It reveals itself when pastors of the same denominational affiliation feel the need to compete against each other, or when pastors feel as though he needs to be seen as the only one who could do things right: the pastor is great because he preaches every sunday, because he conducts the choir, and because he designs the liturgy unique to his church. Perhaps it would be even better if he, too, would write his own catechisms and confessions. So, he would naturally resist appointing elders in his own church because then the jobs would be distributed among them. Not only so, he would, perhaps unlike Moses, encourage the flock to not forget that the church is about him, and that the other elders, if appointed, are really just under him anyway.
It exists in not only the pastor, but also in the businessman or politician or family member who communicates that this company, nation, or family would collapse were it not for him.
Not so with Moses. He was glad that these elders were appointed as he was still leading. In fact, he wished himself that the Spirit would anoint every person so that all people could prophesy. The matured Moses understood that this event was not about him but about God. He did not deserve the spotlight, and the fact that the youth were jealous for Moses’s sake communicated to him that they, too, had missed the point. This wasn’t a competition among 71 masters. This was about a Master with 71 servants. Israel is great not because Israel had Moses.
Moses knew that he too was merely human. In fact, he was pointing to one who was greater than Moses, the one who came to him as the great “I am” in the burning bush. The only one upon whom we can all depend: Christ, who is the great Prophet, Priest and King.
But this manifestation of idolatry remains subtle because our culture, whether Asian or Western, tends to see this form of leadership as a sign of strength. In Chinese culture authority and control is the mark of a great leader. In Western culture independence is seen as a primary virtue – the sense that self-sufficiency is a human goal and right. The individual coming from the former glories in the perception that everyone else depends upon him alone, while the individual from the latter culture glories in the perception that he or she depends on no-one else to get things done.
freedom in dependence
Omnicompetence is an attribute of God alone. No one person is competent at all things by himself. Christ remains head alone of the church – the body is to work in interdependence together as a whole. Will the eye say to the hand that I have no need for you? So in the same sense God invites us to be free in our dependence upon others, and to seek help where we genuinely need it. We ought to feel unthreatened when others are appointed to positions of authority, and we must in fact embrace it. There is great freedom in knowing that I cannot do all things. I may be able to teach theology, but I am no great street evangelist, but perhaps I know someone who is, whom I could help. I may know some church history, but I am no expert in the relationship of politics and religion – instead of feeling the need to spread myself thin and to become an expert in that subject, perhaps I know someone else who is. A pastor once preached that our attitude as christians is an attitude of “nothing to lose, and nothing to prove,” and he’s exactly right. We’ve got nothing to prove, nothing to boast, but in our dependence in Christ alone – and dependence looks nothing like our sinful thirst for control.