“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” –Lord Acton
Yes, sooner or later – later, if he is strong or well meaning to begin with – but neither strength nor good purpose will last – sooner or later the Dark Power will devour him.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The history of the world is rife with stories of men who made power their aim. Looking back to the Roman Empire, a high number of the emperors were not descended from royalty, but were simply generals of Roman legions who used their authority to gain the title of Emperor. Julius Caesar, Vespasian, and even Constantine used their positions in the military to gain the top position in the Roman Empire.
In the years since, there have been many examples of people who sought the domination of others. The tales that come out of times of revolution are filled with examples of people who co-opt the revolution for their own ends.
Even within the Christian church, there are many situations where pastors have gained power within a congregation, only to abuse that power.
All of this begs the question – is the issue that power corrupts, or is it simply that power reveals the underlying character of those who seek it?
Corrupt People Seek Power
One thing that is clear from history (other than that people don’t learn from history) is that the people who seek to dominate others are not gentle or humble. They may still make good rulers, but this is in spite of a strong streak of pride and narcissism that runs deeply in them.
When someone desires something like wealth, fame, or power, the process of acquiring that thing never makes them a better person, nor do they suddenly become satisfied once they achieve some level of success.
Many times, those who are ultimately successful in gaining positions of power become paranoid of those around them, fearing that those closest to them might unseat them. Sad to say, but the most narcissistic people tend to rise to the top and once there, their true character become obvious to those with eyes to see.
Quite simply, those who desire power the most are least able to handle it.
Christians and Power
There are exceptions to every rule. There have been a number of people who stepped down when their popularity was at its height and seem to have put the good of others before their own desires for greatness.
This is unusual. In democracies, most people leave office because their “time is up” and the voters have tired of them, not because they have decided to relinquish power in favor of new blood. The record of dictators is even worse and most of them leave office for an unscheduled appointment at the morgue.
The men and women who are exceptions to this rule have had a strong moral compass and valued privacy more than any benefit they got from wielding authority over others.
What of Christians? It is unfortunate that many churches operate as a political structure. Who is chosen to lead it? How do we make certain that we, as followers of Christ, do not get corrupted by the power we have attained?
Philippians 2:5-8 says,
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
Jesus had all power at His disposal and yet He was never corrupted by it. He calls His followers to emulate Him and His thought process in three ways – humility, servanthood, and death to self.
It is crucial that we have the Mind of Christ in place before we attain power. This is the only real defense against the corrupting influence that power tends to have on humans.
The only thing that really fights materialism is to actively give our things away. The only way to wield authority without abuse is to become a servant and to die to ourselves.
Leaders in the Church
Churches are political organizations. They have boards and committees and pastors who lead. The reality of church life is that those who lead tend to be charismatic, well spoken, and are good at manipulating others into getting their own way. Pastors are good at crafting sermons and delivering those messages in a way that makes others take up and notice.
As time goes by, a charismatic minister gains power within the church. Church members may attend church specifically because of the person who is preaching. At the same time, fewer and fewer people have the ability to speak truth into that preacher’s life.
This is a dangerous place for a church body. The reason why modern democracies have an orderly transition of power is because there are sufficient checks and balances to keep a narcissistic individual from staying beyond his elected time in office. The same is needed for church life.
Churches look for the wrong men to lead them. They should be looking for men with a servant spirit and who are filled with humility. Instead, they seek men who are good at self-promotion and speak well.
A congregation must have processes in place to deal with abuse. More than that, they need people with courage and authority to deal with the abuse within a church, regardless of how it might manifest itself.
Dealing with Power on a Personal Level
Everyone has a little bit of power. It may only be the tiny power of the few potted plants within your sway. It might be that you have a few students or fellow employees that you oversee. How well are you doing with this authority?
Asking the people who report to you at work is unlikely to yield truthful answers. People who are most dictatorial in their behavior are the least likely to hear honest reports of how their leadership style is perceived by others.
To start with, we need to ask ourselves how easily we could lay down our power. If it would be something that is difficult to give up, it tells us that it is getting more of a hold on our lives than it ought.
More than that, we need to think honestly about the people we work with. If we are thinking of them as underlings whose main job is to make us look good, then we have lost our way.
It is easy to argue about whether power corrupts, whether the pursuit of power corrupts, or whether people simply find in positions of power the weaknesses that they had all along. What we can say for certain is that power is addictive and there are far more examples of power misused and abused than there are of it being used appropriately.
Jesus calls us to turn our backs on the pursuit of power. He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.
In His cross we will find the power to live in victory and contentment.
In His cross we find the realization that the Master of the Universe chose to lay aside His power, humble Himself and be a servant.
We, His servants, can do no less.