The Worship Problem
Theists in general and Christians in particular often worship a God they call “omnipotent.” This practice creates profound problems.
In The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence, I address those problems. In one chapter, I focus on lyrics and liturgies that proclaim God as all-powerful. My argument: they implicitly endorse abusive politicians and policies.
From an early age, many praise God as all-powerful; sermons, songs, and symbols say God is sovereign. Day after day, week after week, believers corporately or individually praise God as able to do absolutely anything. For many, the words of worship are more influential than either scripture or philosophy when it comes to imagining divine power.
A common worship theme says God sits atop a hierarchy of power. God is the “King of kings,” say many citing biblical language, and “Lord of lords” (e.g., Ps. 136:2-3). In this view, it’s easy to think a Divine Commander orchestrates a top-down chain of power, and all rulers and authorities in the chain carry out God’s commands.
Often accompanying claims about omnipotence are complementary claims about humans as passive subjects or obedient servants. When God is thought to exert all power, worshippers function as puppets, and God pulls the strings. When God is thought to control occasionally, worshippers must trust Omnipotence will guarantee what’s really important. The implication, however, is that any evil we experience wasn’t important enough for God to prevent.
It’s even common for worshippers to say they’ve surrendered decision-making to the Almighty. “Take my will,” some say, or “I’m only free when the Sovereign King controls me.” The omnipotent God is large and in charge, and He rules over creatures whose power is either nonexistent or inconsequential.
Worship Supports Politicians
Seeing God as omnipotent affects how believers think about political leaders and social policies. Doctrines of divine power shape our views of creaturely power, both political heads and systems.
Carl Schmitt, the progenitor of political theology, argues that humans build political systems from assumptions about divine sovereignty. “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” says Schmitt, “not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure.”
It’s to be expected, of course, that our views of earthly rulers will also influence our views of the divine Leader. In fact, such influence is necessary if language about God as leader is to make sense. Without analogies between Creator and creatures, we can’t talk plausibly about God. The question is, Which analogies make better sense of God as leader?
When worship rites and rituals describe God as King of kings, we are tempted to imagine God in the image of imperial rulers. That’s what many in early Christianity did. As Alfred North Whitehead quips, “The church gave unto God the properties that belonged exclusively to Caesar.” Those properties often included absolute sovereignty.
The practice of comparing a Divine Ruler to human rulers is, as Charles Hartshorne puts it, “perhaps the most shockingly bad of all theological analogies, or at least the one open to the most abuses.”
Politicians Are Part of an Omnipotent God’s Hierarchy
Similarly, when God is worshipped as King of kings and Lord of lords, it’s natural to think political leaders should be afforded at least some of the privileges we afford God. When we ask, “Who has unlimited power?” says Schmitt, we identify a king, president, prince, or some other power broker whom we regard as above the law.
God and king are granted exceptions. In fact, the typical understanding of miracles assumes an omnipotent God occasionally breaks the laws of nature and controls humans. That’s exceptional. Analogously, earthly sovereigns should be allowed to break social and moral laws that apply to the rest of us.
History shows that most leaders crave power. When they get it, they wield power in coercive ways. History also shows that some citizens are attracted to power-hungry politicians, at least in the short term. They hope a strongman can, by fiat, solve their problems.
Given these realities, it should not surprise us when worshippers project onto God their emperor’s desire for authoritarian control. Nor should we be shocked when serfs or citizens want a god-like potentate to end their troubles singlehandedly. Absolute power—one ring to rule them all—is alluring.
Omnipotence Endorses Politics
The problem is not only that humans project onto God the desire for control that they find among earthly leaders. An omnipotent Divine King also directly or indirectly legitimizes the rule of earthly kings.
A controlling God ordains the authority of presidents, lords, prime ministers, CEOs, managers, and anyone else in power, whether they were elected or installed by fiat or with violence. After all, an all-powerful Being can on a whim install, prevent, permit, or overthrow anyone.
Some point to biblical passages as support for the claim that God picks political leaders and systems. “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities,” the Apostle Paul tells readers in Rome, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2).
Adolf Hitler realized the benefits of this argument, and he was fond of calling God, “The Almighty.”
When believers agree with those in power, Paul’s words provide evidence God also agrees. The ruler is divinely sanctioned. They ignore Jesus when he says, “the kings of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . but not so with you” (Lk. 22:25-26). When believers don’t like a leader or political system, they appeal to other biblical passages that justify opposition to earthly authorities.
The King of Kings and Lord of lords is male. And most often, human commanders are male.
This prompts Dorothee Soelle to wonder, “As a woman I have to ask why it is that human beings honor a God who most important attribute is power, whose prime need is to subjugate, whose greatest fear is equality?” And “why should we honor and love this being . . . if this being is in fact no more than an outsized man?”
Anna Case-Winters offers a similar criticism. “The power implied [in omnipotence] has been interpreted as power in the mode of domination and control.” Power as “over power” rather than “with power” is legitimized for humans, says Case-Winters, “with disastrous results in the form of oppression, exploitation, and violence.” In fact, “the prevailing model [of God’s power] is shaped by a male bias, and the resulting way of meaning and living out power has had negative ramifications in the realm of human affairs.”
Women can be domineering too, of course. And they can oppress. But there is little doubt that the history of tyranny has developed in the image of dominant and oppressive males. And the God considered omnipotent has often been considered male.
Can an Omnipotent God be Good?
A common retort to this argument says God differs in a crucial way from human rulers: God is perfectly good. Human leaders are not. “There are no absolutely good people,” say some, “but we worship an absolutely Good and Omnipotent King.” God is a Benevolent Dictator. To put it another way, controlling tyrants cause harm, but controlling Love does not.
This argument falters for many reasons, but I’ll mention two. First, it ignores our first-hand experience as agents with power and freedom. If omnipotence means God exerts all power or controls others, God cannot be omnipotent and creatures have power and freedom. And if benevolence is always persuasive, “Benevolent Dictator” is a contradiction. Dictators don’t persuade, they control.
Second, when pointless pain and unnecessary suffering occur, believers rightly wonder why an allegedly good and omnipotent King does not stop them. The Benevolent Dictator must be asleep. Claiming an all-powerful God differs from powerful kings by being consistently good fails to align with our experience of genuine evil. A benevolent being who can stop evil does stop it.
To worship God as omnipotent, therefore, is explicitly or implicitly to endorse the ruler or political system of the day.
Worship of the Almighty Supports Tyranny
Most worshippers will not admit to this endorsement, of course. Tyrants may demand sovereignty, but most believers would not say God sanctions a tyrant’s abuse. However, believing God can do absolutely anything, control others, or has all power means God wants whatever leader or system is in power. At least God wants them more than wanting someone or something else. Omnipotence can make political changes in an instant.
John Calvin identifies the folly in thinking there’s an ultimate difference between an omnipotent God permitting oppressive authorities or policies and God willing them. We should make “no distinction between God’s will and God’s permission,” says Calvin. “Why shall we say ‘permission’ unless it is because God so wills?”
In another writing, Calvin puts it bluntly: “What else is the permission of Him who has the power of preventing and in whose hand the whole matter is placed but his will?” Saying an omnipotent God permits tyrants and tyranny is no different from saying God wants them.
(For more on this and my alternative to omnipotence, see The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence.)
. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, 36. See Catherine Keller’s brilliant use of and response to Schmitt in Political Theology of the Earth.
. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected edition by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free, 1978 ), 234. For an overview of Whitehead’s view of religion, see Daniel A. Dombrowski, Whitehead’s Religious Thought (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2017).
. Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, 11.
. Schmitt, Political Theology, 10.
. Joerg Reiger shows how this view affects God’s relation to economics. “The classical theist notion of omnipotence, which has no real match in the Bible if perceived as an absolute topdown category, has been revitalized by the top-down flow of money in the free-market economy,” Reiger argues. See No Rising Tide (Minneapolis, Mn.: Fortress, 2009), 80.
. John Sanders explores the consequences of thinking God is authoritarian or nurturant in Embracing Prodigals (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2020).
. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, G. T. Thompson, trans. (New York: Harper, 1959), 48.
. Pope Alexander VI’s Demarcation Bull, May 4, 1493. Also known as “The Doctrine of Discovery.” https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/doctrine-discovery-1493 (Accessed 1/6/22)
. For example, see Ekaputra Tupamahu, “A Decolonial View of God,” in Uncontrolling Love, Lisa Michaels, et. al., eds (Grasmere, Id.: SacraSage, 2017) and Randy S. Woodley, Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonialized Approach to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2022).
. Jonathan Foster portrays controlling divine power as “Omnipotence” with a capital O. See his Theology of Consent: Mimetic Theory in an Open and Relational Universe (Grasmere, Id.: SacraSage, 2022).
. Among books arguing for the irreducibility of freedom, see Jeffrey F. Keuss, Freedom of the Self (Pickwick, 2010); Timothy O’Connor, Persons and Causes (Oxford, 2002).
. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), III.23.8.