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.
Wow, Ben! You seem to have a knack for putting into words so well what is floating around in my head. My journey has been so much like you described– I didn't want to step into a role for fear of power corrupting me. All this lead to the false sense of humility you described.
The breakthrough for me– establishing securely and regularly my Covenant relationship with my Father. From this place of abiding and remaining, all of His Authority and Power flow for the situations I face.
In the security of my Identity in Him I find striving for Authority or Power seems so petty. In the security of my Identity in Him I find striving to give away all the Authority or Power He wants me to operate in for His Kingdom is denying His lordship in my life.
Life is found in dying.
Freedom is found in surrendering.
Authority is found in abiding.
Power is found in humility.
Thanks for sharing!
Ben Sternke says
That's great Michael! Love hearing a bit of your story. Hope all is well!
nate shoemaker says
hmm. i don't think i can fully get behind this one this time.
using the example of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf rejects the ring because of it's power. not because of the risk of it exposing his heart, but because of the risk of ALL our hearts to corrupt under power.
i think you touch on a more complete answer near the end of your post: "Trust him to root out the corruption in your heart and equip you to bear authority and use power well."
when we have our hands on power, when we're left to wield power of our own, it does indeed corrupt. but when we're given authority to wield power that is not our own, we are given responsibility to steward that which was never ours to own. Christ gives us authority to act in HIS power, not pretend we have power, not act in our own power, but to call upon his power as steward.
Gandalf refused the ring because he was protecting his heart, not his image or exposure. he wielded great power, but refused a position of power. Luke 22:25-26 is referring to them acting in authority of their own positional power, which is why verse 26 is so important.
i do also agree with your last statement, "…because the avoidance of power is just as much of a problem as the abuse of power." but for the same stewardship reason. just as identity brings with it authority, obedience brings with it His power. to avoid His power, we must also avoid and deny obedience, and that is a problem.
Ben Sternke says
Good points all, Nate.I think I would still maintain that power itself doesn't corrupt us. Sin corrupts us, and power tends to be a temptation for us because of it.
Well, it all comes down to character, we see so many corrupt politicians and leaders because it’s in their nature to seek power and wield it how they so choose. But, often enough those who can handle power care little for it. It is not the tool, but the wielder at fault.