“Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Acton said, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
When greatness is defined by the acquisition of authority rather than the selfless regulation of its exercise, Acton’s observation is undeniable.
The Old Testament, for example, contains the biographies of many great men who regulated their divinely-lent authority with a selfless concern for the people they led. They were great men whom great power did not corrupt, men like Abraham, Moses, and Joshua.
At the opposite end of the spectrum reside many great men whose power (and concomitant wealth and liberty) destroyed their once noble characters and cast them into pits of selfishness and iniquity. King Saul fulfilled Samuel’s prediction of royal presumption and privilege, descending into paranoia and unbridled bloodlust to protect his throne. A successor, King Solomon, soiled his reputation for unparalleled wisdom by breaking polygamy records, embracing idolatry, and validating hedonism in Israel. His son, Rehoboam, brought the nation to its knees with his imperious demands. When asked to lighten the burden of his heavily-taxed people, the new monarch instead promised to be even more exacting than his father had been: “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke” (1 Kings 12:10-11).
Even in the middle are men of sometimes ambiguous character. King David is known as a man after God’s own heart, but his adultery with Bathsheba and quest to murder her husband in the coverup stain his name with the excesses of (almost) absolute power.
Modern history is likewise replete with tales of good men who became great in realms political, monetary, heroic, or even religious – only to allow the resulting power to corrupt them. America is witness to elected officials, major candidates, investment barons, soldiers, and ministers who succumb to the seduction of their own success. Blessing becomes curse and pride precedes the fall.
Biblically, this inflation of pride often leads to one lording himself over the people whom he ostensibly should be serving, demanding from them material or emotional enrichment, validation of their authority, or whimpering obeisance.
When, in the fifth century B.C., Nehemiah traveled from Susa to help rebuild Jerusalem, he discovered problems that exceeded the toppled walls and porous gates. Eventually, his leadership caused King Artaxerxes to make him governor of Judah, giving his power a title as well. He wrote, however,
The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. (Nehemiah 5:15 ESV)
Nehemiah refused many of the privileges that accompanied his office, not simply to curry favor with the people, but because he genuinely cared about their welfare. He was a leader in the best sense of the word, a man resistant to the seduction of power and luxury. “Yet for all this,” he wrote, “I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people” (Nehemiah 5:18).
Nehemiah remains a rather obscure Bible character because his name does not appear in the New Testament, but the book that bears his name also reveals the greatness of his virtue. Nehemiah understood that leadership is primarily a position of service, rather than a proud perch from which to be served.
A century and a half earlier, God had sent Ezekiel to prophesy about affairs in Judah, as the nation suffered irreversible decline. He addressed the shepherds of Israel – the nation’s spiritual voices – and accused them of feeding and clothing themselves at the expense of the sheep:
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:4)
The result of this self-serving dereliction was the scattering of the people, who ignorantly wandered into the idolatry that would kill them and topple the nation as a whole. All these examples share the corruption of authority, the taking of advantage and privilege.
The early history of the church demonstrates the potential for the same abuses against the backdrop of Christ’s teachings. Jesus, who coupled all authority in heaven and earth with a yearning, not to be served, but to serve, epitomizes the kind of leadership the disciple should exercise, whether in the church or elsewhere – business, sports, the classroom, the community. He scuttled the ambitions of James and John by reminding them,
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)
This episode exposes the fundamental fallacy behind self-serving leadership. It is the welfare of those being led that should be preeminent in the leader’s motivation and methods; when titles, praise, and personal enrichment take precedence, he will soon be wearing their wool.
The apostle Paul, despite the great authority he exercised, seems to have understood the reasonable limitations of his power. Although he needed to chasten the saints at Corinth, he chose to spare them a face-to-face encounter. “But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith” (2 Corinthians 1:23-24). Paul acknowledged a superior relationship than one in which he bossed around a band of timorous peons. He promoted a spirit of willing cooperation, refusing to lord himself over their faith, despite his apostolic credentials (see also 1 Corinthians 16:3).
The Pharisaical spirit of self-exaltation was given no legitimate place in the early church – ecclesiastical titles, vestments, and greetings were naturally unwelcome (see Matthew 23), but the very attitude of self-aggrandizement was prohibited as well (James 4:6). By the time the New Testament canon was nearing completion, abuses, however, were occurring. The apostle John wrote about one Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. … And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (Third John 1:9-10). Whether his leadership was presumptive or official, Diotrephes was a malevolent dictator, driving the church into an abyss.
The new covenant also speaks to disciples whose leadership is less religious and more social or commercial. In an economy where slavery existed, the Holy Spirit insisted, “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1). “Masters, … stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9 ESV).
Today, leadership is available on many levels that fall short of religious – in business, academia, politics, and sports. The principles that take root in the Old Testament and blossom in the New, however, extend into every aspect of a disciple’s experience. Moses, Jesus, and Paul provide positive examples of selfless leadership, while Rehoboam, David, and Diotrephes provide cautionary evidence of the corrupting, self-serving potential in leadership.
In religious settings, however, leadership takes on even more importance. To varying degrees, elders, deacons, preachers, and teachers exercise leadership that is sometimes official and at other times intentional. The cautions remain.
James warned, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Elders, especially, take partial responsibility for the souls of the sheep whom they pastor, “for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).
The motivation for entering into such ministries tells part of the tale. A desire to be center-stage, to be in charge, to be admired or feared, to enjoy exultation, to be addressed by a title or adorned in a vestment – such selfish, worldly ambitions expose a personality unprepared for leadership. A preacher who craves the spotlight of the pulpit more than the private interaction with the lost and discouraged is preaching for himself, not God.
The apostle Peter even warned directly of a replication of Israel’s problem with arrogant, self-serving shepherds. Warning his fellow elders, Peter told them to
shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2-3 ESV)
As paragons of spiritual maturity, the role of leadership among bishops is plainly one of serving the flock through exemplary behavior, self-sacrifice, patience, and nurturing. The flock is not assembled to kiss the bishops’ rings or to submit themselves for shearing that the treasury might add to the pride of the leaders.
The leadership of teachers and overseers begins and ends with Scripture, upholding the truth of the new covenant in both doctrine and practice. It values the soundness of the church and the welfare of the flock; it tears down error and builds up faith, promoting healthy fellowship and providing reliable guidance. Where leadership proves its affection for the flock, trust, cooperation, and fruitfulness result.