Power and Authority in Mennonite Ecclesiology:
A Feminist Perspective


This content written by a daughter/mother pair, by Lynda Nyce and Dorothy Yoder Nyce, first appeared as chapter 8 in Power, Authority, and the Anabaptist Tradition, edited by a son-father pair Benjamin W. Redekop and Calvin W. Redekop, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, pp 155-173, 214-216. It is reprinted here with permission of Johns Hopkins Press.

One of the most salient issues concerning the use and abuse of power among religious groups in general and Anabaptist/ Mennonitism in particular is that of gender. This topic, which has already emerged in a number of the foregoing chapters, is the center of attention in the present chapter. The authors present a wide-ranging theoretical and practical discussion of power and gender in relation to Mennonite ecclesiology. The discussion combines scholarly analysis and critique with a call for change.

Power, which is inherent in all social relationships, actively shapes church life, whether church members and leaders own, confront, deny, or ignore the extent of its influence within ecclesial settings. When traditional, unbalanced power is legitimated, church experience resembles certain sixteenth-century modes of Roman Catholic leadership. Early Anabaptists protested against those forms of church polity, and prophetic word is still needed today against them. Many forms of worldly power and authority have shaped church practice. Historians, sociologists, and theologians have identified the believer’s church in various ways that presuppose strong biblical ethics, yet, as Rosemary Radford Ruether notes, “All patterns of church polity are relative and historically developed, patterned after political and social patterns in the culture.”1

Most normative exercise of power in Christian churches has centered in a few men. Though rarely named, such exercise accentuates gender divisions. By gender we refer to the social roles linked to masculine and feminine that are largely produced through culture, whereas sex refers explicitly to biological distinctions between women and men. Just why a pattern becomes normative, and who exercises power to determine that designation is a subject that needs attention.

The fact that men are socialized for more public roles and are identified as more authoritative does not prove that the patterns have merit. In fact, such stereotypes unduly bless some, while limiting other individuals. Reinforced by male language and a male priesthood for God, the Jewish-Christian heritage credits men with more qualities of the Divine. This limits God’s breadth of being as it blesses men’s practice of power. As women exercise disciplined skills with biblical texts and risk dissent from traditional views that restrict their strengths, more equitable channeling of power may follow. Faithfulness, marred for centuries, will occur when power finds equitable expression, and when authority emerges from within each person. Commonweal–the common or public good–could then shape leadership consistent with Jesus’ radical call for wholeness (salvation) for all.

The Concept of Power

Max Weber’s definition of power is an important touchstone in contemporary Western thinking about power. Although Weber’s notion of power has been translated differently, it is typically understood by social scientists as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.”2 Using this definition, the “powerful” are seen as those who have power over others – whether via access to resources, positions of prestige, or wealth. Power-over creates a social relationship wherein a power differential exists between the dominant and subordinate actors. It implies “the ability to advance oneself and, simultaneously, to control, limit, and, if possible, destroy the power of others.”3

Many views of power have influenced Believer’s Church ecclesiology since the mid-1500s. Today Mennonite women scholars turn to feminist writers like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who explains feminist intentions to change systems of domination and subordination. Patriarchy has generally conveyed a separation between men, who dominate or have power over subordinate, less powerful women. But rather than limiting the discussion to man’s rule over woman, Schussler Fiorenza has introduced the neologism kyriarchy. By this she means “rule of the emperor/master/lord/father/
husband over his subordinates.” This points to the multiple “inter-structuring of systems of dehumanization.”4

Patterns and attitudes related to power among Believers’ Church members often reinforce domination and submission. This in part stems from faulty biblical interpretation. For example, creation texts in Genesis reveal how God shared dominion with the first human beings. Whereas dominion in that context meant “responsible care,” it has been interpreted as justifying power over created life, including other people. Or, in another example, the verse in Ephesians 5 that calls for wives to submit to their husbands has been interpreted in denial of the overarching, radical call of verse 21 for mutual submission between husband and wife. As long as imbalance of power marks this primary human relationship, other expressions of power within the church are destined for inequity. Jesus spoke for people restricted by social power, warning those with more power to share it more selflessly (see texts surrounding Matthew 18:1; Luke 7:44; 11:46; John 11:27; 13:14).

The Historic Position of the Free Church on Power

Several years ago, when approached about the extent of his power, the CEO of a major Mennonite agency responded, “Oh, I don’t think of myself as having power.” Such a denial should alert those who might be under his influence. Traditionally, Mennonite leaders have tended to downplay how positions convey power. Whether appointed or chosen by lot, they have expressed suspicion toward the exercise of power. Because it is thought to reflect sinful pride from the world beyond the church, or is known for its potential for coercion and force, personal power has been minimized by church leaders. Fear of accepting power and its harmful cosequences to others at times prompts its subtle use. As Julia Kasdorf observes, “Traditional injunctions to be humble have at times served to silence the voices of some while protecting the authority of others in the Mennonite community.”5

S. Loren Bowman notes Church of the Brethren leaders’ reluctance to admit the presence of ecclesial power. Because of the dictum “power corrupts,” to talk about the use of power and authority is “not nice.” Leaders close their eyes to it, yet they use their position to gain privilege.6 While some leaders willingly enable church members, others prefer not to recognize their responsibility for power. Still others seem unwilling to admit that their actions may block able members from exercising their power. For example, rather than endorse qualified women for the task, a few (Old) Mennonite Church men controlled much of the written discussion about women and the church during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Looking to historic origins, Gordon Zook identifies the first generation of Anabaptist leadership (1523-1561) as “charismatic.” Leaders challenged the dominant, interrelated system of church and state hierarchy. Through personal power of convictions, they adapted the style of leadership to particular situations. But the “free-floating and ad hoc” early New Testament pattern of leadership began to give way to “more settled” structures.7

So, how did early Anabaptist women’s authority express itself? Lois Barrett translated and examined the longest extant document (thirty-three pages) written by an Anabaptist woman – Ursula’s “77 visions.” Five years after the movement began, Ursula explains “The glory of the Lord approached me and unfolded.” During that charismatic era, and perhaps because women were less encumbered with “official” authority, they were more prone or open to visions. As both artist and exemplars, visionaries used their power to teach, counsel, and heal. Through them, people were strengthened to “grow internally, change the world, and take direct actions.”8

The Anabaptist emphasis on the end of this world and individuals’ hope for the next world affected leadership too. Because many leaders died for reasons of conscience; the turnover rate precluded dynasties of leaders from emerging. Yet kyriarchy shaped their praxis. Convincing, egalitarian attitudes did not replace previous Roman Catholic Church patterns. Historian Joyce Irwin finds little evidence “that women’s status in sixteenth-century sects was more free and equal than in established churches.”9 Keith Sprunger, in his study of Anabaptist women, concurs: “It is hard to find in the Anabaptist writings any distinctive or innovative trend regarding women.”10

Yet, historian Linda Huebert Hecht’s study of the Tirol area reflects a premise from Schussler Fiorenza’s study of the early church in Acts: since women’s accounts of ministry survived androcentric history-writing, we can be sure that even more were significant leaders. Huebert Hecht’s data also confirm Max Weber’s hypothesis: “Women have always been more involved and more visible in the early stages of religious movements . . . until relationships in the community become routine and regimented.”11 Using court records of 238 women from the Austrian territory, Huebert Hecht discovered four major categories of women’s leadership within a several-year span: 172 were believers, whose only crime was rebaptism; 10 were missioners who actively brought others into the movement; 7 were lay leaders who preached, baptized, and hosted meetings (one unnamed female leader of the Ziller valley allegedly baptized 800 people); and 49 were martyrs, most of whom had been arrested at least twice.12

Consider Helene of Freyberg, rebaptized sometime before March of 1528. Her castle became a house-church and refuge for Anabaptists. Her example and teaching, her profound confession and testimony, and her letters influenced believers. These aroused suspicion of her long before she was exiled from Augsburg. Also competent in theological debates, she served as intermediary between Pilgram Marpeck and Caspar Schwenckfeld.13 Clearly, women were among charismatic leaders of the Anabaptist period.

By 1561, Mennonites adopted a three-fold ministry pattern called “the bench.” In so doing, early Anabaptists followed a pattern common among many religious sects: the movement to more structured church, social, and religious arrangements. First-generation rigor and radicalism gave way to the demands of the second generation for growth in membership, accumulation of wealth and status, and education of the young.14 A related shift occurred within the Early Church, as recorded in Acts and Timothy. The pattern clearly reverted to a more hierarchical scheme, like that practiced prior to Jesus’ new, more equitable community. Spanning four centuries, the Mennonite triad of bishops or elders, preachers or ministers, and deacons, was ordained to life-long leading. Surely, variations rose and waned. Even the term “three-fold pattern” sounds contemporary for what likely formed or de-formed over time.

Zook identifies the single-pastor pattern emerging after 1950. Its cabinet-style coordinating group, followed by the addition of a body of elders, preceded shifts that included salaries and the present team-leadership concept. Within the single-pastor and team-leadership patterns, women have had a greater voice than before, but not without resistance. Many church members fear women’s increased self-definition and personal control. Or the wife of a male leader may still be praised for staying “behind the scenes.” The question emerges whether defining women in relation to men distorts the image of both. Such distortions, related to gender and power within the church, no longer go unnoticed, however.

Historian Arnold Snyder raises further questions: Can the present North American church, from its position of privilege, truly follow the call to serve Christ in the world? Does being part of a powerful northern nation counter the gospel’s vision of a worldwide church? Will believers resort to conformity and silence, rather than lose privilege? Has the church that is structured in bureaucracies of control (led by a professional, elite class that expects members to be submissive) not misused valid power?15


A central theme in early Anabaptist/Mennonite writing is “the body of believers” or “brotherhood,” a relatively egalitarian entity. According to historian Harold Bender, the Anabaptist emphasis on church as brotherhood is anti-hierarchical; it minimizes the role of clergy and church offices and places emphasis on lay participation and responsibility.16 Kniss and Ainley note that the egalitarian emphasis of this “idealized Anabaptist-Mennonite church organization seeks to make members full participants, to level inequalities of status or power, and to de-emphasize conflict in interpersonal and intragroup relationships.”17 Yet, for many church leaders, this remains only an ideal; the practice of power in leadership has not made most members full participants.

Some leaders, thinking they might minimize the corruption of power, choose to add the concept of service to leadership. To attach “servant” to power fails, however, to attack the root stance of “power over” within churches. For, as Fiorenza observes, “As long as actual power relationships and status privileges are not changed, a theological panegyric of service must remain a mere moralistic sentiment and a dangerous rhetorical appeal that mystifies structures of domination.”18

To claim to be a servant leader, yet retain rather than reinvest authority given by others, makes hypocrisy of the “servant” role. To cause another to be dependent robs that other of worth and personal authority. The weakness of leaders who depend on others to be dependent upon them cannot be disguised as “service.,” for to serve another or to truly share power means to delegate it and to exchange roles.

Another manipulative feature of faulty servant leading is expressed when a leader carries out tasks, notably in the public arena, in place of others who are either fully qualified or who deserve to have the experience in order to improve their skills. Leaders who fail to empower those who have invested their personal authority in them do the investors a dis-service. Authentic servant leading, woven into the fabric of an institution, entails the regular exchange of roles. As David McClelland states, “To be an effective leader, one must turn all so-called followers into leaders.”19 For leaders to become followers further reveals authenticity.

A context for mutual service presents itself with the planned merger of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church denominations. Time will reveal how these two groups will agree, or agree to disagree. As Rodney Sawatsky notes, General Conference Mennonites have “rejected the authority of Mennonite bishops who sought to maintain a traditional Mennonite identity premised on sectarian separation from the world.”20 Some distinctive features of General Conference Mennonites pointed out by Sawatsky include: authority of individual religious experience (for Christian freedom and against group discipline); congregational autonomy (decentralized); value of acculturation (borrowing from others); centrality of authority (identity impossible without authority); high view of biblical authority (preaching). With more validation of the individual, the move toward the ideal of exchange between followers and leaders might materialize.

Creative, enabling church leadership waits to be re-born. But authentic “priesthood of all believers” continues to be aborted as long as the rite of ordination distinctly blesses a few. Some people believe that because men are ordained for leadership tasks, equity requires that women also receive that blessing. For others, being radical and equitable requires an end to the selective rite of ordination.

A consistent believers’ church model would hold that all are ordained, as part of personal commitment in adult baptism, to the prime task of sharing the Good News of God’s inclusion. That rite initiates ministry. To re-ordain in essence discredits priesthood for all. Therefore, ministry, and the power endowed through it, needs to be credited to and claimed by, every believer. Defined more broadly than tasks performed by “ordained” individuals, ministry, in its basic and inclusive sense, describes every believer’s service to Christ, the church, and the world.21

Several biblical texts give direction. Matthew 23 begins with a challenge for leaders to avoid vanity. Because all people are brothers and sisters, special titles distinguish only the Divine. Members of Jesus’ immediate circle of followers were expected to avoid human hierarchy. Not being God, believers had no basis for being authoritative or for forming a Christian elite class. Piety, for the sake of honor, expressed hypocrisy. To be set aside through a rite, or to expect others to call them “Master” or “Great One” went against their common priesthood.

Luke 22:24-27 also addresses leaders of the Christian community. Issues noted include: strife among believers over power; betrayal within the circle of the covenant; interpersonal humility when believers sit at the “Lord’s Table;” “office” or position that counters the integrity of community; and failure of authority figures to follow the pattern of Jesus’ life and passion.

Matthew’s account (20:20-28) of contention among leaders adds striking features. It portrays the mother of James and John requesting a position of honor, attributing such “small mindedness” to a woman. Without condemning ambition, Jesus clarifies what accompanies her request: suffering, service, and forgiveness. The request for honor is deemed inappropriate, for only God determines who will be exalted. Similarly, only God decides who is worthy of inclusion in God’s commonweal. So, among people of God’s Kingdom, washing others’ feet qualifies a leader, rather than dominion or prestige.

These texts do not negate the reality or validation of power in scripture. In most religions, power is an important quality of divinity. Those with faith in the One God are to express that power, as did Jesus, by bringing glory to God and by enabling the marginalized of society to renew their strength. Numerous acts of power beyond Jesus’ miracles appear in texts. Ruth exercised power when she assisted Naomi’s reversal from deep bitterness, an expression of power from within. Esther, with power and courage, approached the king on behalf of her marginal, Israelite people. The Syrophoenician woman expressed power when she countered Jesus. Her sense of personal authority influenced him to change his plan. He then agreed to extend salvation (a message of power) to the Gentiles. Peter also gained new power to include others. Whereas Cornelius was already a convinced believer, Peter’s conversion to accepting those he had thought were “unclean” transformed him into a new, authentic witness.

Need believers’ church members, therefore, hesitate to claim power or inherent authority? Or might caution about it imply guilt for abusing valid power? What alternative beliefs about, or practice of, power lie dormant within church settings? Perhaps a first response involves protest against past developments, against consent primarily to “things as they are.” Leaders may fear change but kyriarchal power will decline only when members refuse to approve faulty patterns. Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that “It is precisely at [the] point of assent and economic support that Catholics need to subvert hierarchical power.”22

Judith Plaskow, a Jew, also expresses dissent. Jews must reject the historic Jewish idea of chosenness (without denying that Israel is a distinct religious community). The purpose of being chosen was to tell others of God’s inclusion of all people. Yet the “chosen” idea has come to exclude others or to imply superiority. Plaskow calls Jews to view election as duty (not privilege), as service open to suffering (not reason to be exalted).23

Jesus set a standard for action. Asking for baptism, Jesus willingly showed his solidarity with people in their need. The “heavens were opened,” and Jesus was endowed with power, wisdom, and holiness. Chosen by God, he took on the mission of offering wholeness to all people. In order to begin his ministry, Jesus set a precedent. In the rite of water and Spirit baptism, he was “ordained” for all of the leading, healing, calling, and forgiving that he would practice. In that rite, he established a true “priesthood of all believers.”

Authentic adult baptism, then, bestows the power to minister on each believer. No further rite to distinguish some who minister from others who minister is justified or encouraged by the radical Jesus. To bless a few can detract from all believers being responsible with the power invested in them in baptism. To do so blesses hierarchical division. Letty Russell reiterates this point: “Many women would like to see the sacraments return to their communal function with baptism of all members for ministry. . . Women notice the basic issue . . . to transform the church structures that divide clergy from people and obscure the meaning of ministry as the work of Christ that is shared by all those who are united with him through baptism.”24 For Russell, there are never too many leaders. She believes that power and leadership gifts multiply when shared. Rather than endorse power accumulated at the expense of others, she affirms styles of leadership based on a partnership paradigm of shared authority in community. Leaders share power and authority; they inspire others to lead. “Effectiveness is related to how well the leader empowers those who are assigned marginal roles.” The task begins with opposing and exposing social and ecclesial patterns that sanction over-under categories or that interpret ministry as service while blessing clerical privilege and exclusion.25

The Radical Reformation was strongly anticlerical; to confront today’s leaders about clerical power entails a similar risk. The historian Arnold Snyder predicts that “The desire of the powerful to dominate and utilize the ministry of the church will remain constant.” He concludes that if we were to imitate “the Anabaptist impulse towards a more equal ministry,” we would curtail a clerical class. Our “faith parents” desired “a church in which every believer is a minister, a servant, and disciple of Christ.”26 Such a vision will fail to be actualized, however, if church leaders resist relinquishing their “credentials.” If all believers fully endorsed all as ministers, no need would exist for the terms clergy and laity that inappropriately divide followers of the Radical One who lived and died to empower all.

Power is measured by its ability to control or to mobilize people and institutions. Worship services and church events also foster either a dependency on the “leader” or significant empowerment of the majority. Group process enables one or several of the following: goal achievement, policy change or implementation, behavior that benefits or harms, renewed or altered patterns, and the dispersal of power.27 To the extent that leaders or members abuse, downplay, or ignore these options, effective influence is bypassed.

God’s power is entrusted to believers; “it belongs to us, to the extent that we pass it on.”28 For Christians to have faith means that they believe in God’s power through Jesus. When Jesus said to the woman who touched his garment, “Go in peace, your faith has healed you,” he acknowledged her power in what occurred. To re-create power in those disenfranchised by church or society further multiplies God’s good power.

This is not to say that all church leadership has “failed.” Exceptional pastors truly enable all members; members, through personal authority, expect to be faithful ministers to others. But the reciprocal task is not simple. Increased sensitivity to God’s mission has transpired at times, but church people need not deny the existence of problems. Nina Colwill suggests that a person competent in organizations must be extraordinary, visible, and relevant.29 Within church life, the extraordinary may counter community, and the drive for visibility may foster pride or fail to empower others. However, to be relevant never hurts.

A Broader Look at Power

Thus far we have noted that theorists, as well as those who have wielded power, have often accepted a classic Weberian understanding of power, without reference to a broader meaning of the term. In German power is both Macht and Kraft: Macht implies might or use of strength; Kraft means by virtue of, to be in operation, efficacy, or energy – “power exists as potential.”30 If seen as Macht and not as Kraft, power intrinsically prescribes social relationships of dominance and inequality. Thus, the other face of power, as indicated in the previous chapter, is power-to31 – a very different concept than power-over. Power-to invokes the usage of Kraft and has been termed “empowerment” by many feminist writers. Power-to can be used in a positive manner to encourage others to rise from a position of comparative powerlessness to one of comparative equality.

The predominant kyriarchal expression of power has been power-over. This sanctions power at another’s cost. One person gains strength or definitionm while another’s is reduced. One participates more fully, while another loses voice. One holds onto rather than reciprocating that which truly enhances. Power-to, on the other hand, expects each individual to stand firm and free. Rather than being coercive, it promotes partnership. Rather than needing categories like dominant and subordinate, rulers and servants, high class and untouchable, haves and have-nots, clergy and laity, power-to knows mutual suffering and glory. In Believer’s Church ecclesiology, whether for efficiency or for more nefarious intent, power has been exercised as Macht rather than Kraft. However, the Believers Church ideal implies that the early Anabaptist church felt that Kraft was essential.

As we have seen in Chapter 2, for Michel Foucault power is productive and strategic. Power as negative or repressive is a direct antithesis to strategic power. As repression, power is a force exercised over the body that denies its real “essence.” But as a productive force, power produces reality; it produces realms of objects and discourses of truth.32 When Foucault conceives of productive, strategic power, he notes that power is exercised in techniques, functions, and tactics, but is not a possession. Furthermore, power relations are not limited to confrontations between social classes or between citizens and the state, but they exist at the most basic level of the social domain.

Society writ large is imprisoned in a mode of conceptualizing power that originated within the context of early Western industrialism. This factor has created an obstacle to effective analysis of contemporary power relations. For Foucault, each historical era legitimizes a particular discourse of power/knowledge. The establishment of a structure of power within society or a group in society is correlated with the production and circulation of “true” discourse: “Power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful) . . . power and knowledge directly imply one another . . . there is no power relation without any correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”33

Following this logic, feminists attempt to be more “up front” about power, their own included. Free to critique abuse of power – whether by force, coercion, or political and economic might – they are determined to avoid repeating mistakes. They also expect to be constructive through power, to bring about greater justice through exercising it. They describe the neutral quality of power in terms like “the ability to act;” “the capacity to effect change,” “a person’s present means to any apparent goo” and “the ability to mobilize resources.”

In Gyn/Ecology, Mary Daly focuses on the importance of discourse in building reality – a truth of women that has been denied and repressed.34 Yet feminists have increasingly recognized that there are multiple truths of women (for example, that of white and non-white women)35 and thus multiple practices of power. Foucault’s emphasis on the material or basic level of power relations may lead to new awareness of power differentials among women of various race, class and age groups. As women continue to recognize their diversity and to rediscover their own relations of power, knowledge, and discourse, they wish to avoid “the romanticizing assumption that acknowledgment of women’s historical involvement in social discourse will somehow be the key to success in rebuilding a world with equality for women.”36

Generally defined or shaped by those who control it, power within patriarchy left oppressed men and most women at a disadvantage. Feminists re-interpret power by focusing on empowerment. Throughout the recent World Council of Churches “Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women,” feminist women of the church boldly expressed their vision. Ready to reclaim dignity, rather than succumb to being victims, they took initiative to reconstruct theology and spirituality. They endorsed societal and familial changes that foster relationships based on equitable authority.

Elaine Graham identifies three dimensions of gender: 1) Individual characteristics and personality traits shape a person’s sense of self, or identity. 2) Gender relations involve multiple factors and roles, including customs and cultural expectations concerning marriage, position within law, education, or government, sexual divisions of labor, and how wealth, opportunity and rewards are distributed. 3) Gender representations, coming from deep within structures of culture, affect the metaphors and binary distinctions that order and shape our complex perceptions.37

Open to such new ways of thinking, women’s discussion of power related to leadership will first test views through the direct experience of women. Personal charisma matters more than office. Determined to be creative, women will both accept and challenge traditional sources of religious authority. They will, for example, critique religious ideas and practices that distinguish mind from body in order to reinforce hierarchy or exclusive separation. The historic Mennonite posture of sola scriptura will be scrutinized also, for never has Scripture alone been our source of authority.

Secondly, according to Durka, women are changing the style of religious leadership.38 Intent on being more collaborative, shaped by direct religious experience and influenced by having been on the margins, sensitive women ask new questions: Why simply move into ordained ministry models meant to exclude women? How do openness, pluralism, and dialogue reshape ministry? Writer and professor of theology Letty Russell calls the church to host a round table where all gather around God’s table as a household. With no space on a circle for a “head,” each member claims, extends, and receives authority. Those whom society rejects will be invited; faithfulness to Christ depends on that stance. Those empowered at the margins participate from there assured, or they join the center. From either location, they talk back. They confront and disturb those who have presumed a central location. All work to cancel divisions of margin and center.39

The Christian church has rarely achieved true community or shared partnership. Those features are diminished within a framework of authority as domination and subordination, as powerful and powerless. “People of the Way” or koinonia/community described the early Christians, prior to ekklesia/church. Today, justice-oriented Christian feminists call believers to side with the poor of every circumstance and to witness to God’s liberating action. They understand spirituality to be connection – with self, others, and God – within varied religious traditions. Spirituality affirms the full humanity of all people while rejecting dualisms and hierarchies.40 Attention to gender brings all such dimensions to a discussion of power.

Legitimacy and Authority

As with power, authority shapes all relationships. It depends on perceptions, especially of those more influenced by power through relationship. Within organizations, Colwill concludes that “People who feel powerful are powerful, and people who are powerful feel powerful.”41 Within churches, to the extent that leaders deny either statement, all people under their influence are endangered, rather than empowered.

Diverse kinds of authority – also called “weight” – originate from diverse sources. Authority might be conferred by consensus on a person respected for clear insight. Professions confirm competent people in their field. Previous effective functioning might endorse a person’s “people skills.” Agreement might confer on a person the right to speak for a community. Due to ex officio position, tradition, or custom, an older person might be extended authority.42 Legitimate authority in a Weberian understanding is granted to leaders or groups via traditional claims (patriarchal custom or inheritance), charismatic claims (an individual holding “divine grace”), or rational/legal claims (appeal to rational rules, procedures, or structure rather than qualities inherent in any given individual).

Power holders have an interest in securing the legitimacy of their authority over those who are expected to obey them, for legitimate authority is less costly than coercive or reward-based authority. Therefore, what is essential to an understanding of authority is the claim to legitimacy, where leaders cultivate a belief in their own legitimacy among the led. Per Weber’s definition and use of the terms power and authority, traditional and charismatic leaders could only be men. We would argue that he also viewed leaders within the rational/legal structure only as men. Hence, if only men define power, they do so to legitimate their own power position. However, redefinition of power also must be done cooperatively by both women and men.

Authorities (who establish and interpret the rules and norms that constitute a tradition) have traditionally excluded women, and the rules and norms on behalf of which authorities act have traditionally excluded values and practices considered feminine or maternal. Yet, women have always employed power in their traditional roles. This power takes the form of fostering the growth of others, using power to empower others. Women have also been seen as the keepers of tradition, yet without legitimate public outlets for that knowledge. In our everyday actions, we all participate in the reproduction and interpretation of some tradition, hence we all have prudential knowledge. Nevertheless, because of our different locations within the relational network of society, we participate differently and develop different stocks of knowledge. The problem is that the knowledge that some of us have developed has no voice in the public world; it has no authority.

Lois Janzen Preheim writes about needing to develop voice and authority: “For years I was the recipient of the church’s power. I neither had to understand the overall picture or feel responsible for the outcome. . . To be an effective person in the congregation, I have had to make the transition from recipient of power and a learner of how it all works to a user and a respecter of authority. For me that meant finding my voice, learning to use my verbal skills in honest and loving ways.”43 An example of gender legitimacy occurs when a woman expressing an insight in a Sunday school class receives no response, only to have a male “authority figure” a few minutes later make nearly the same statement and be publicly credited for his good idea. Little vision or progress results, however, if women gain voice or position primarily because they cater to male leaders or established patterns. Radically different approaches need to be implemented to overcome past habits of power imbalance blessed by church life.

A 1959 paper by French and Raven notes six bases of power: reward, punishment, legitimate, expert, referent, and information. All of these characterize church life, though their expression may differ compared to other institutions. Not only might a church leader reward or punish a member, but the leader also portrays God (and not the church leader) as the arbiter. Legitimate power is conferred when a person’s legitimate right to influence another is recognized by the latter. For one to perceive another’s expertise differs from the referent type, which extends power because of identifying with another. At times, church leaders have also been known to withhold information valuable to others.44

Authoritative exercise of power can be construed to legitimate the pursuance of self-interest. Some church leaders reveal an inner need to be a savior figure for others. Because Jesus saves, they think that to practice in his stead warrants that others will perceive them as essential and indispensable. Or a leader of a congregational business meeting may feel a need to translate what others say through his/her own lens, without remaining faithful to the speaker’s original words or meaning. With paternalism or “father knows best” implied, less-defined people will give assent rather than assert their own power.


Rarely have Anabaptist-Mennonites been radical enough regarding power and authority. To “go to the root” would credit each child of God with being created in goodness and endowed with authority. Each retains throughout life the responsibility to choose in whom to reinvest a portion of authority, for a particular period of time. To the extent that the recipient of another’s authority reinvests (in due proportion) this power in those who have extended it, she or he proves to be worthy of the investment. Such constant exchange reimages power and authority.

As this concept is instilled in each young child, woman and man, each becomes a more faithful steward of Divine Authority. Doing so could revolutionize the concepts of obedience and discipleship for all believers. It could help to counter the sin of violence and abuse that has thrived within structures that discriminate based on gender, class, age, or race. It could replace corrupt power of office with the power of each believer’s primary accountability to God. Such changed expressions of authority could promote justice and power for all.

Sally Brown Geis notes three areas of significant change for redefining religious leaders’ status and role: the “sacredly masculine” image of the ordained leader, the separation of clergy and laity (replacing it with ministry of “the whole people of God”), and the image of clerical authority as interpreter of religious truth. She contrasts controlling power as bad and life-giving power as good, observing how both St. Paul and Carter Heyward reshape Christian community around views of power: “For both, power is relational, incarnational and generative of new forms of human connection and community.”45

Women have always made major contributions to church life. Their power, authority, and influence have shaped the church. As their secondary posture and compliance with male rule have diminished church effectiveness; less faithful membership has resulted. Both women and men will need to change. For women to assume more leadership roles is a partial solution, providing they intentionally counteract kyriarchy. Since radical change disturbs “things as they are,” neither mediocrity nor conformity to established male patterns will move the pendulum. Only with power and authority truly reimaged by all will ecclesial energy express divine potential.

Moving toward that goal, what can be expected? Already Mennonite and Free Church women in leadership roles have brought genuine passion and compassion to pastoral tasks. An MCC Women’s Concerns Report asks, “Have women leaders made a difference in worship?” Articles that follow answer yes. The proof expresses itself through more hospitable space and refined timing of services, attention to symbols and visual elements, inclusiveness, scriptural variety, validation of the whole being, collaboration, and flexibility. Repeatedly, stronger preparation by women is noted. Remarking that when women are more visible in the congregation’s public life, it changes a congregation’s sense of what it means to be a people of God, Rebecca Slough sees women becoming blessed by gaining empowerment through leadership. “We have voice. We have authority. We know ourselves as embodied spirits of God. We are changed.”46 The church is being transformed through women’s leadership.

Resistance also occurs. At the 1981 Mennonite Church General Assembly in Bowling Green, Ohio, major discussion focused on leadership and authority. An ad hoc group of church women had met in advance to strategize on how to address the theme from the floor and how to communicate in settings with only women present. Male leader anxiety took several turns with one obvious result: only delegates were permitted to speak at subsequent Assemblies. When women mobilized the power within their reach, leaders responded to the challenge to their power with backlash or tightened control.

As reported by Mary E. Hunt following the Re-Imagining (a conference to promote the World Council of Church’s Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women) held in Minneapolis in 1993, backlash distorts, confuses and distracts. That conference provoked negative judgments from people who did not attend. Mennonite women who were present left the life-giving experience inspired to more disciplined, faithful study of biblical texts, and were freed to responsibly re-imagine basic categories of theology. Hunt describes the common thread for the two thousand diverse participants as “a willingness to revisit, reconsider, and reshape fundamental dimensions of the Christian faith tradition.”47 Effective leadership empowered all present; shared authority reinforced each participant’s integrity of being.

Who knows how long the wait will be for women leaders to instill radical insight into power through full ministry within the Free Church tradition? Pamela Dickey Young observes, “The appropriate form of leadership is one that promotes the work of the gospel without denying the possibility of full participation for all its members in all its functions.”48 A current movement called Women-Church calls for authentic, political community through exodus from patriarchy. To cooperate with “the enemy” is no longer satisfactory for men and women committed to a revitalization of “being” and “doing” church. Renewed personal and corporate faith will form around such tasks or needs as “advocacy, self-identity, transformation of the church, [and a] new practice of spirituality.”49

Faithfulness to the gospel calls for more power from within Free Church groups to creatively reorganize both church and society. Counter to most church trends to become more ingrown and less world-aware, faithful leaders will challenge believers to pursue in-depth analysis of the root causes of deepening poverty, for example. Limited Western concepts of development will no longer suffice. To politically transform patterns of violence calls for convincing authority within individuals and groups.

Free Church members’ concern for social ethics has a lengthy and venerable history. But renewed vision from leaders on issues of sexuality and poverty are still needed. The Roman Catholic record of risk-taking on behalf of the oppressed in non-North American countries speaks for itself. The willingness of Catholic nationals to express power through political confrontation of injustice sets an example for Mennonite and related Free Church groups. The Radical Reformation legacy of separation of church and state led to an isolated worldview, and pacifist convictions likely restricted believers from public defense of justice.

The imitation of secular forms of power imbalance lingers on. Although centuries of teaching about being in the world but not of it shaped a certain stance toward authority for many Mennonites, new insight into this stance comes from Letty Russell. “[Presbyterians] recognized a need to be in the world but not of the world, serving those in need, but they did not recognize that they themselves were of the world, holding to a view of reality that looked upon persons who were victims of injustice as ‘others’ who ‘bring these things on themselves’ by their actions. . . The problem or sin was the churches’ conformity to the unjust norm of compulsory heterosexuality and gender inequality.”50

While Free Church members preach love of neighbor, they/we also often support a social status quo that fosters oppression. Furthermore, Christians teach God’s preference for the church and claim exclusive powers of salvation through baptism and the eucharist. These teachings in turn sanction ecclesial power and clerical privilege. Such inconsistencies abound, making the need for attention to issues of personal and social justice more prominent.

For Free Church people to “aspire to join the movers” as J. Lawrence Burkholder suggests in Chapter 1, they must learn from others, including Two-thirds World leaders, who increasingly call for rainbow power patterns, rather than traditional kyriarchy. Rooted in struggles for liberation and understood best by oppressed peoples, global as well as local efforts for change can no longer accommodate patterns of power-over. Mennonites and other Christians can draw on feminist insights to radically reform their understandings of authority and power-to.