The phrase is quoted as obvious truth so often that I had never really stepped back to think about it: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It sounds right, partly because we’ve seen so many leaders in positions of authority seemingly change after they came into power.
But does power actually corrupt people? I think a closer examination reveals that it doesn’t. Power doesn’t corrupt. Power reveals and amplifies what was there the whole time. It brings the hidden things of the heart to the surface. Power is a truth serum that exposes our hearts at the deepest levels.
Even in The Lord of the Rings, which many see as a fictional illustration of the concept, it wasn’t the ring of power that caused corruption in the hearts of its bearers. The ring simply brought to the surface and enlarged any hidden dreams of power and control that the person who wore it already had.
As C.S. Lewis said, “Provocation doesn’t make me ill-tempered: it only shows me how ill-tempered I am.” Power is like that – it brings our true character to the surface.
So I often meet people who seem afraid of stepping into authority because of a bad experience with a dictatorial leader in their past. They associate power with corruption and don’t want to take the risk of becoming corrupt themselves.
But if power doesn’t corrupt, avoiding leadership and authority is the wrong approach. To put it bluntly, avoiding power for this reason is to live in fear, abdicating responsibility in the name of humility. There is a real authority we are called to step into in the kingdom, real power we are called to wield for the good of the world as God’s kingdom agents.
The avoidance of power is simply an overreaction to the abuse of power, but to shy away from leading strongly when that is the best way to serve a community, to avoid positions of authority for fear of corruption is just as much of a problem as the abuse of power, in my view. It takes courage to step into the risky, responsible role of leading others well.
So the answer to the problems associated with power is not avoidance, but sanctification. Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up. Stay dependent on him. Trust him to root out the corruption in your heart and equip you to bear authority and use power well.
Because we are called to authority, but Christ’s word to us is clear when we find ourselves in this position:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest,and the one who rules like the one who serves.”
And from a previous post:
As a leader, a disciple-maker, I hold everyone with an open hand. I never demand anything. Anyone can stop following me at any time for any reason with no ill will from me. I don’t own or “command” these people in any way.
But we do take responsibility for the vision God has given us, and we humbly accept authority and power when it seems best for us to carry it, because the avoidance of power is just as much of a problem as the abuse of power.