Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely… Or Does It?

“Power does not corrupt. Power is not the source of corruption.”

There is a common saying: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The idea is that when people are given power, they are corrupted by that power and do horrendous things.

Perhaps this is partly where war crimes come from; when a man is given the power of a gun and training, he is easily corrupted by that power and kills unarmed civilians or prisoners. Perhaps this is the cause of all the abuse we hear of these days.

Politicians given the power of wealth, status and authority become corrupted and abuse and bully those under their charge.

Pastors given spiritual authority and the power of teaching and instruction are corrupted into leveraging that power for personal gain and control over the lives of their congregation.

The problem is that this saying is wrong.

Power does not corrupt. Power is not the source of corruption.

Sin corrupts. Sin is the well-spring of our bad behaviour.

Jesus put it this way:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

Luke 6:45, ESV

Power provides an opportunity for corruption to be displayed.

When a man is weak, he may want to physically abuse someone but he is unable to do so. If he becomes strong (and so gains the power of physical strength), then he is able to let his desire to abuse turn into actions.

This concept has very practical applications.

Power is not evil

If Jesus is right (and he is), then the implication is that power itself is not evil. Unlike our cultural proverb suggests, evil does not arise from power. Power does not necessarily result in corruption.

All we need to do is consider God for a moment and we can work that out.

God is all-powerful. He has more power at his disposal than all the combined power of all the firepower of all the militaries of the world (including more than 13,000 nuclear warheads).

“Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.”

Jeremiah 32:17

God wields that power with absolute authority, doing whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3).

And yet, despite having all that power and authority (and actually using it), God is good (Ps 107:1).

So, if you are in a position of authority, if you have strength and power, don’t be ashamed of it. Power and authority and strength are good things that God has woven into Creation. He wields these things himself and gives them to men and women as well.

Being the boss of a team or business is not a bad thing. Telling your staff what to do in that situation is not inherently sinful. A husband exercising his authority and making a unilateral decision on behalf of his wife is not an intrinsically evil action. A mother deciding what her daughter will wear without asking what her daughter wants is not necessarily immoral.

Power, authority and strength are not the root of wickedness.

But we must wield our power and authority in a God-like manner.

Sin must be destroyed

Sin corrupts and power gives the opportunity for a person to act on their sin.

This means that it is not power we need to run from, it is sin. And the best time to get control of your sinful desires is before you have the opportunity to act on them.

Kill your sin before you get power, authority and strength. And then keep killing it. That is the secret to wielding authority, strength and power in a godly way – be killing sin.

Young men, gain mastery over your sinful sexual desires while you are single so that when you are given sexual authority over your wife (1 Corinthians 7:4) you know how to handle the power of sex.

Young women, learn to put to death your evil emotional desires while you are young so that when you have power over the vibe of your home (Proverbs 21:19) you know how to handle the power of mood.

Parents, teach your boys how to put to death anger when they are small and weak so that when they are big and strong, they know how to handle the power of physical strength (1 Peter 3:7).

Learn to put to death greed while you are poor and pride when no one knows your name.

Then, as you grow and are given power, authority and strength, continue to put off the sin that so easily entangles us and seek to exercise the power and authority that God gives to you in a way that reflects the image of the strongest, most powerful authority around, the Triune God.

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