If covenant is the basis of grace, and grace is the underlying atmosphere of acceptance and forgiveness, then empowerment is the action of God in people’s lives. We see it supremely in the work of Jesus Christ. The celebrated message of Jesus is that he has come to empower: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The apostle John puts it this way: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). Ray Anderson (1985) insightfully exegetes this text by noting that power “of blood” is power in the natural order, and “the will of the flesh” refers to tradition, duty, honor, obedience, and everything that is part of conventional power. In this passage, then, it is clear that the power is given by God and not by either physical or conventional means.
The power given by Jesus is of a personal order—power that 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 empowerment. Jesus redefined power by his teaching and by 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. His empowerment was directed to those who occupied the margins.
In a very real sense, empowerment is love in action. It is the mark of Jesus Christ that family members need to emulate most. The practice of empowerment in families will revolutionize the view of authority in Christian homes. Sadly, authority in marriage continues to be a controversial issue today because of a widely accepted secular view that power is a commodity in limited supply; therefore, a person must grab as much power as possible in relationships. Whether through coercion or manipulation, striving for power leads to antagonizing competition rather than to the cooperative building up of people. Power becomes a distortion that distances, in contrast to mutual empowerment, which leads to unity.
But the good news for Christians is that the power of God is available to all persons in unlimited supply! Ephesians 4 reminds us that unique spiritual
gifts are given to everyone for the building up of the body of Christ, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (v. 13). In a similar vein, Galatians 5:22–23 contrasts the works of the flesh against the fruit of the Spirit, which is freely given and defined as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In verses 25 and 26, we are encouraged and admonished: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” This is the character of God, and it is available to all family members who draw on the inexhaustible resources in Christ Jesus!
Empowerment is born out of God’s covenant love, and it thrives in the gracious relational context experienced in Christ Jesus. The Spirit of God empowers us to empower others. And when mutual empowerment occurs among family members, each will be stretched in the extraordinary ways of servant love and humility. Family members will grow in the stature of Christ as they mature into the character of Christ in their daily interactions. When they use their areas of strength to build up one another, they are placing unity and interdependency at the heart of their relationships. It has nothing to do with having power over others but rather involves taking great delight in building up one another to become all God wants us to be. This is the essence of what we read in 1 Corinthians 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but loves builds up.”
Traditional thinking about parent-child relationships is also based on the false assumption that power is in limited supply. Thus, parents often fear that as children grow older and gain more power, their parental power will automatically be reduced. In contrast, a relationship-empowering approach to parenting begins by reconsidering the nature of power and authority. In the biblical sense, parental authority is an ascribed power. The Greek word for authority, exousia, literally means “out of being.” It refers to a type of influence that is not dependent on any personal strength, achievement, or skill but that comes forth “out of the being” of a person. The Greek word for power, dynamis, is the word from which dynamo is derived. The authority of Jesus flowed from his personhood. It was dynamic.
Dynamic parents have authority that flows from their personhood as they earnestly and responsibly care for their children’s physical, social, psychological, and spiritual development. The process of empowering
children certainly does not mean giving up a position of authority, nor does it mean that parents will be depleted or drained of power as they parent. Rather, parents and children will both achieve a sense of personal power, self-esteem, and wholeness. Successful parenting involves building a relationship in which children gain personal power and parents retain personal power throughout the process.
Once again, human fears and personal or cultural needs may stand in the way of parental empowerment of children and adolescents. In the frailty of human insecurity, parents may be tempted to keep their offspring dependent on them. In the attempt to use their power over their children, they may inadvertently have a false sense of security in their parental position. When children obey out of fear and under coercion, it is likely to backfire. An emotional barrier develops when children are loyal out of obligation rather than by choice. The parental demand for unreasonable obedience and loyalty may be culturally motivated, but it is often related to selfish needs as well. In contrast, covenant love and empowerment lead to a mature interdependency in which there is both freedom and a continued sense of belonging for adult children. This kind of love remains faithful, honorable, and predictable even when differences threaten to endanger the relationship.
All parents have experienced the temptation to keep a child dependent, which is often rationalized as something we do for the child’s own good. Many times, however, the child is kept in a dependent position for the parents’ own convenience. Empowerment is the ultimate goal, where parents release the child to self-control. Of course, mistakes will be made, and failure will be the occasional consequence of trying out new wings. Parents have a hard time letting their children make mistakes (especially the same mistakes they themselves made when young), so this transition to self- reliance is difficult for parents and children alike. It is important for parents to remember that the key to their authority lies not in external control but in internal control that their children can integrate into their own personhood. When this integration occurs, it is a rewarding and mutually satisfying achievement.
On the community level as well, Christians are called to live according to extraordinary social patterns. Even though we are sinners, God provides us with the ability to follow the empowerment principle in our relationships. God empowers us, by the Holy Spirit, to empower others. The biblical ideal for all our relationships, then, is that we be Christian realists in regard to our
own sinfulness and tendency to fail, but Christian optimists in light of the grace and power available to live according to God’s intended purposes.
Intimacy: To Know and Be Known Humans are unique among living creatures in our ability to communicate through language, a capacity that makes it possible for us to know one another intimately. Our Christian faith is distinct from Eastern religions in its teaching that God has broken into human history to be personally related to us. A major theme that runs through the Bible is that God wants to know us and to be known by us. We are encouraged to share our deepest thoughts and feelings through prayer. We are told that the Holy Spirit dwells within us and that God understands the very groaning within that cannot be uttered (Rom. 8:26–27).
Adam and Eve stood completely open and transparent before God, “naked, and . . . not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). The intimacy that Adam and Eve felt enabled them to be themselves without any pretense. They had no need to play deceptive games. Only after their disobedience did they try to hide from God out of a feeling of nakedness and shame—to which God responded with care and gracious provision of animal skins. Shame is often born out of a fear of unworthiness or rejection. Shame entails the experience of personal wrongness—I am wrong or broken. When shame is present, family members put on masks and begin to play deceptive roles before one another. By contrast, as we examine the nature of the pre-fall human family (which is the only social institution that belongs to the order of creation), we find an emphasis on intimacy—on knowing and being known. This is what it means to be a servant, to empty oneself as Jesus did when he took the form of a servant. This is how one is to be submissive and loving in relationships. It is also true that to have any union or partnership or interdependence with another person, one must always be willing to give up some of one’s own needs and desires. When family members come to one another with this kind of attitude and perspective, they will find a common ground of joy, satisfaction, and mutual benefit.
When family members experience grace and empowerment flowing out of covenant love, they will be able to communicate confidently and express themselves freely without fear. Family members will want what is best for one another. They will make a concerted effort to listen, understand, accept