The abuse of power

Recently, we’ve been considering Psalm 51 and the story of King David’s horrific abuse of power. It’s difficult to read such a tale without cringing. Faithful David, God’s anointed, lusts after Bathsheba, another man’s wife. He beds her while her husband Uriah is serving the king on the battlefield. When she announces that she’s pregnant, David has Uriah killed in the hope of covering his tracks. It’s not until his crime is cleverly outed by the prophet Nathan that David repents before God, his spirit broken.

Some things don’t change; people in leadership still abuse their power. The most obvious examples may come from the arena of secular politics — but the church is not exempt. In recent years, stories of the secret and scandalous behavior of such well-known leaders as Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacharias have rocked the Christian world.

Nor is the problem limited to the largest churches and organizations. Pastors have been abused by leaders in their congregations, and congregations have been spiritually abused by narcissistic pastors. Believers are left feeling hurt, betrayed, and disillusioned.

As many have said, however, we can’t be disillusioned unless we’ve harbored illusions in the first place. We just didn’t know we were doing it.

We’ve read the story of David of Bathsheba; we’ve heard the cautionary tale. We should have learned something from it. But, alas, the story seems so far away from us, a relic of another time and place. Surely our leaders, the ones we admire, the ones we support with our tithes and donations, our time and energy, aren’t like that?

Most of the time, hopefully, no. But sometimes, unfortunately, yes.

. . .

There’s only so much to be accomplished by trying to root out and get rid of the “bad apples.” It’s not just about “them” — it’s about us. Why, for example, do so many churches hire narcissistic pastors? As researchers suggest, it’s because leaders who lean in that direction often display the qualities the people want in a leader. They’re charismatic. They inspire people with their vision. They’re sure of themselves. We imagine how far our congregation could go with someone like that at the helm. Think how much we could grow! Think what marvelous things we could do for God!

And things may indeed go well for a season — until some planned ministry fails to live up to the hype, and someone has to take the blame. Until someone dares question the pastor’s vision. Until the murmurings and the gossip grow too loud to ignore. Congregations divide; people who used to be friends take sides against each other. And even if a leader is labeled as toxic and ousted, the same dance may be repeated a few years hence if the culture of the congregation doesn’t change, if the values that made that leader seem so attractive in the first place aren’t identified and questioned.

But we need to go even further. Not many of us are the leaders people see up front. We may be behind-the-scenes folks, who don’t have the same kind of power that more public leaders do. But what do we do with the power we have? How do we lead others? Are we so focused on the tasks that need to get done that we run roughshod over the people? Do we talk but not listen? Do we badger and scold, but not encourage and praise?

Whether in a congregation, an organization, or even within the home, many of us have some kind of leadership responsibility. Many of us have some kind of power in our relationships. To be clear, power itself is not the problem; without power, nothing could be accomplished. But power can easily be abused as it slowly begins to corrupt our hearts and even our good intentions.

The corrective is to always look to the example of Jesus. The one who had the power to heal the sick and raise the dead, the power to still the wind and waves, the authority to command legions of angels to save him from crucifixion, nevertheless submitted to the power of hatred, jealousy, and political expediency. But we shouldn’t think of Jesus becoming powerless. Rather, his power was the power to submit to his Father’s authority, to give what was his alone to give for the sake of empowering others: his life.

May we learn to be as wise with what power we have.