A guy named Lord Acton is credited with saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s part of a longer claim (and here’s the actual quote): “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority…”
Some recent brain research has given a window into why Acton may have been on to something. From “Power Causes Brain Damage”:
- Subjects under the influence of power suffered noticeable changes in the areas of the brain that controlled impulsivity, risk-awareness, and, crucially, and the ability to see things from other people’s point of view.
- They were worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.
- They stopped mimicking or “mirroring” others, an action which builds empathy by triggering the same feelings those others are experiencing. There is an “empathy deficit.”
- They increasingly view everything 1stperson (George Bush famously held a flag backwards to an audience because it looked right to him).
I want to talk today about power. We all have it – we all have influence and impact – but some of us are in positions where the influence and impact expands. As Christians, it’s crucial we recognize the dangers of it, but also the solutions that allow us to use the power God has given us in a way that honors God and builds the Kingdom of His church.
When Peter writes to the church about leadership, he focuses on this issue. That will be our starting text for today.
To the elders (church leaders) among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherdsof God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherdappears, you will receive the crown of glorythat will never fade away. Those who are younger, in the same way be submissive to those who are elder (church leaders or simply ‘older’). All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:1–5
In the New Testament there are three terms used to describe the same office:
- Elder focuses on the character qualities; he must be a mature man of God (See 1 Timothy 3:1-7and Titus 1:5-9)
- Overseer (or bishop) is used interchangeably with elder (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7) and has to do more with church governance.
- Pastor (shepherd) builds on the shepherd metaphor: care, ‘feeding’, and protection of the ‘flock’
The apostle Paul gives quite a list of qualifications for being an elder (see 1 Timothy 3), but Peter is more focused. Other than mentioning that nobody should be forced to lead (good advice in a time when leadership might mean death), his advice revolves around character: specifically, how leaders are to handle money and power.
Not Greedy For Money
An elder dare not have money and riches – “filthy lucre” as the KJV would say - as a purpose or goal of being in church leadership. If leaders ever turn the church into a personal money-making enterprise, we are in trouble.
Frankly, I think church elders are under a higher obligation to consider what is an appropriate wage from the church. I don’t mean they shouldn’t get a decent or good wage – Paul tells Timothy not to “muzzle the ox” because the laborer is worthy of his hire. But Paul told Timothy that elders were not to be covetous of riches – that is, in love with money, serving it rather than Christ. I think Proverbs gives the reason:
Two things I ask, O God. Sometime before I die, grant these humble requests: Eliminate any hint of worthless and deceitful words from my lips. Do not make me poor or rich, but give me each day what I need; For if I have too much, I might forget You are the One who provides, saying, “Who is the Eternal One?” Or if I do not have enough, I might become hungry and turn to stealing and thus dishonor the good name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-9)
Not lording over others.
2,000 years ago, Jesus warned Peter that His Kingdom was not of this world. Both Peter and Paul, by the many ways in which they put structure around those who lead in the church, were warning us about the problems that can accompany power, even in the midst of God’s people.
Leaders in the church cannot become lords. 2,000 years of history has proven the practical wisdom in this. Whenever the church has become intertwined with national power, the church has become either oppressive without and compromised within.
Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 300s for selfish political reasons, and that combined with his reputation for violence hurt the reputation of the church even as Christianity spread.The Anabaptists claimed the fall of the church began during Constantine’s reign. “By recognizing Christianity as a legal religion (including making Sunday a legal holiday), he slowly strangled what was once a vibrant, close-knit, committed fellowship of persecuted believers, and turned it into a religion that would become, by law, at the end of that century, the official state religion of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE).”Within less than 80 years from Constantine’s legalization, the “Christian government for the first time executed Christians that deviated from the government-endorsed orthodoxy.” 
Thousands were killed by the Church’s Inquisitional courtsin the Middle Ages.
In early America, Christians who fled here to escape persecution by the powerful suddenly had power - and did the same things:
- Puritans banished people for not being Puritan
- Protestants denied Catholics property, voting rights and even holding public office – but then again, in the 1500s the Spanish Catholics had slaughtered hundreds of French Huguenots in the New World.
- Then there was the coerced conversion of Native Americans; the Salem Witch Trials; the hanging of four Quakers in Boston in the mid-1600s for being Quaker. In the mid-1800s there were Bible Riots in Philadelphia, where two Catholic churches were destroyed, houses were burnt, and 20 people killed.
Unfortunately, the problem of power we see in the big picture or national politics occurs in individual churches and church leaders as well. As a leader in a church, this concerns me deeply. I want to talk about what I’ve been reading from Christian leaders concerning ways to make sure power does not corrupt, and also talk about how this plays out in our church.
Surround yourself with “toeholders.” “Power Physically Damages the Brain, New Research Reveals” gave some examples of "a toeholder" who tugs you back towards reality whenever you threaten to float away on your inflated ego.
- Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, once wrote to him, “My Darling Winston. I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.” He had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming.” This was written on the day Hitler entered Paris.
If a church leader is surrounded by "yes men", it's a problem. There have to be people who have no problem confronting, challenging, grabbing them and pulling them back when they begin to stray in orthodoxy (right doctrine) or orthopraxy (right actions).
Be transparent and accountable.Some Christian leaders I intensely admire have been falling from the pedestals on which I (wrongly) put them. They have lied about qualifications, misused money, and contributed to the #metoo movement by harassing, using and even abusing women. Beth Moore wrote a heart-wrenching open letter a week or two ago about how men in power in church circles have treated her for decades.  How did they get there? I suspect it was in large part due to a lack of transparency and accountability.
Welcome feedback from everyone. Everyone. It does not mean everyone is right, but it’s possible for anyone to have valuable insight. It's up to leasers to take that feedback and present it to the rest of the leadership (see the next point), as well as and to those who are close to them. This group filter helps leadership to process feedback in a healthy way and respond appropriately.
Serve in plurality of leadership. In both the Old and New Testament, there is always a plurality of elders. Plurality brings a variety of gifts: finances, organization, relational wisdom, hospitality, teaching, preaching. Itprevents burnout; it brings accountability (in life and doctrine); it increases the reach of the ‘shepherds’ and increases wise decision-making.
Practice empathy and 3rdperson thinking. LISTEN!! Spend time talking with people in order to genuinely understand and love them. Practice “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” Learn what it’s like to hold up a flag so it makes sense to other people. I personally have found fictional books, movies and TV shows to be very helpful in broadening my understanding. Not every story is a good story - obviously - but as authors, directors, and writers create stories that can't help but reveal their experience of the world, we can put on the lense of a biblical worldview filter and grow in our understanding and empathy as we pray for wisdom on how to effectively reach everyone with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Follow in some area of your life and leadership. Don’t lead everything. Look for ways to divest of power appropriately. Don't micromanage every aspect of the church. It's a good idea to answer to others in our organization about something - maybe even many things.
Get over yourself.It’s God’s gig, not yours. All good things are His. If the church genuinely flourishes, it's to God's glory, not the glory of leadership.
But Peter speaks to the church here also.
“Those who are younger, in the same way be submissive to those who are elder(s).”
In other words, be respectful and considerate, and seek to serve the leadership even as the leadership seeks to serve you.
- “Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
- “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
Respect does not mean you are timid in speaking truth. Respect is not avoidance of confrontation or criticism. I’ve heard some leaders use the phrase, “Don’t touch God’s anointed”as a means of bullying people into silence. That’s silly. That was specifically, “Don’t kill my prophets because you don’t like what they say.” The Bible itself tells you how to confront someone in leadership who is in sin (Matthew 18; 1 Timothy 5). Respect has to so with approach and attitude.
Submission does not mean you follow and obey anyone blindly especially me. We are all to be Bereanswhen it comes to examining Scriptures for ourselves. You are not lemmings; we are all priests and kings (Revelations 1:6).
“Being subject” is primarily an attitude of respect and cooperation with the elders as they do their best to follow what they believe is the Lord’s will for the church (Heb. 13:17).
Everyone: Be clothed with humility
To the Greeks, what you wore outwardly signaled what you were inwardly. If you were a slave, you wore slave garb. If you were noble, you wore the clothing of nobility. To be clothed with humility was not a false cover up. It was identifying who you were.
2 Cor. 3:5: “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”
“ Don’t let selfishness and prideful agendas take over. Embrace true humility, and lift your heads to extend love to others. Get beyond yourselves and protecting your own interests; be sincere, and secure your neighbors’ interests first.”(Philippians 2:3-4)
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 2:19-21.
Humility is not feeling stupid; that’s shame. Humility is not underplaying our strengths; that's disrespectful to the God who gave us those gifts. Humility is not devaluing yourself; we are all bearers of the image of God, and if we have given our lives to following Jesus, we are now His spiritual children. Humility is a commitment to having an attitude that says, “I do not have more value or worth than you do. I offer whatever I am about to do or say because I think God has something for me to offer in this situation for your good and God’s glory.”
If we can all do this together, we will be flourishing in God’s model for the church.
An Olympic reference. Winners of the Greek games received a garland that would shrivel and die; this crown for “running the race” (to use another Pauline reference) would last through eternity.
Paul says that “the elders who rule well [should] be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). “Honor” (in Greek) meant both “respect” and “price.” As 1 Timothy 5:18makes clear, elders who labor at preaching and teaching should not only be respected, they also should be paid. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_timothy/5-17.htm
 “Lording it over” the flock (5:3) recalls the silly debates the twelve had about who was the greatest, and the Lord’s teaching about the greatest being the servant of all. “Be clothed with humility” recalls Jesus taking a towel and girding Himself as He washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). The word about Satan (5:8) recalls Jesus’ warning that Satan would “sift” Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). The verb, “to perfect” (5:10) is the same word translated “mending their nets” (Matt. 4:21) when the Lord called Peter to follow Him. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_timothy/5-17.htm
“The historian Paul Johnson concludes, “Attempts to perfect Christian societies in this world, whether conducted by popes or revolutionaries, have tended to degenerate into red terrors.” ― Philip Yancey, Christians and Politics Uneasy Partners
To quote John Wesley from 1791: 'After the empire became Christian, a general corruption both of faith and morals infected the Christian Church; which by that revolution, as St. Jerome says, "lost as much of her virtue as it had gained of wealth and power.’"–
Read more at this sobering article: “How Christianity Became Aligned With Politics Under Constantine.” http://butnotlost.blogspot.com/2011/03/how-christianity-became-aligned-with.html
"In the New Testament, there is always a plurality of elders (overseers, pastors) over the church in a given location. Acts 14:23 reports how Paul and Barnabas appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular). Acts 20:17tells how Paul called to him “the elders of the church” in Ephesus. In Titus 1:5, Paul reminds Titus how he left him to appoint elders (plural) in every city. In the New Testament, the church in a city was viewed as a unit. Thus you have the church in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, etc. Each church may have been broken down into house churches that met all over the city on any given Lord’s Day. But over each church there was a plurality of elders or pastors." (I don't know where I got this, but it's not my original words).
Psalm 105:15; 1 Chronicles 16:22