John W. Taylor

Is there such a thing as too much power to do good? As we face an election we should consider how the power, that we entrust to our elected representatives to do good, can so easily be turned to evil. American politicians promise the electorate every conceivable benefit in return for their votes. Across the Atlantic, British elections have frequently become shouting matches over which political party will deliver more or better “public services.” But why is it that those who are given so much power to do good so often disappoint, turn corrupt and end up oppressing those they claim to want to help?

In the first-century Roman Empire the way to get ahead was to find a patron, a rich and influential person who smoothed the path before you, with a word in the right ear, intervention in a court case, or financial help. Those who depended on patrons were called clients, and they would turn up in the morning at their wealthy patron’s mansion. The patron would hold court, passing out favors in the form of money or food, accepting the flattery of the clients, enjoying the honor of being counted as benefactors. In return, clients supported their patrons in the political arena. Patrons were counted as having more honor, the larger and more prestigious was their network of clients. The emperor was the patron-in-chief, able to dispense largesse and advancement. Cities competed with each other to honor and even worship the emperor, hoping to obtain some benefit, such as self-rule, a tax break, or the prestige of hosting athletic games.

The whole system was open to corruption and favoritism, and emperors, whose mere word could mean wealth and power or bring misery and death, often took advantage of their power to enrich themselves and humiliate rivals. Another problem was that it encouraged a demeaning dependency, whereby clients received enough help from their patrons to avoid the cultural shame of manual labor, but were required to constantly abase themselves before their wealthy patrons.

Paul himself likely had a patron, Phoebe, who delivered his letter to the Roman churches (Rom. 16:1–2). She was probably a wealthy woman. But the way she is described makes it clear that her wealth did not give her undue power in Paul’s circles. She is first of all described as a sister—a fellow believer in Christ, at the same level as the poorest church member. Second, she is called a servant (or perhaps a deacon) of the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. It is not known precisely what her role in the church was, but the emphasis is on her service, not her power. Third, she is described as “a patron of many, and of me [Paul] also.” Perhaps she helped Paul financially to establish his tent-making business. In any event she is not a patron of the church at Cenchreae, and there is no evidence that her patronage of individuals gave her particular power in the church. The early church was distinguished from many other contemporary religious groups by not relying on wealthy patrons.

Phoebe’s patronage was helpful because it was limited; the privilege of possessions did not lead to the corruption of power, and the position of client did not create unhelpful dependency. In Second Thessalonians 3:10 Paul says, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” He is talking about people who abused the generosity of the church and its members, and wanted to be kept, as if the church were their patron. Paul commands these people “to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:12).[2]

Lord Acton, the nineteenth-century British historian, famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and he added, “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” When humans are granted too much power, it turns so easily to dust and devilry, even if it is the power to do good.

Washington, D.C. has a huge lobbying industry, because so many interest groups depend on government wealth, or need to protect themselves from governmental abuse of power. The federal budget for 2018–2019 is $4.407 trillion. This money could do good, but it also creates enormous power, so often corrupting those whose job it is to spend it—other people’s money!—and creating a vast web of dependency, with around 100 million people receiving government benefits.

This can even happen in a church or charity. If the authority to hire and fire, or to dispense funds is within the gift of one person, or just a few, without limits and balances, then the pastor or charity director can function like just another wealthy patron, passing out favors to buddies and relatives, while keeping everyone else afraid to speak up in case their jobs are threatened or their resources cut off.

The kingdom of God is not based on bribe and threat, but on love and service. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant.” He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:43–45). He sent his followers out to spread the kingdom of God (Luke 10:9), and yet he did not send them as conquerors, but as servants, as “sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16). The biblical approach is to limit the power of all human authorities, so that rulers truly act as servants, and are not corrupted by the power of patronage to enjoy authority over millions of dependent clients who fear their displeasure.

 

[1]See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

[2]See John W. Taylor, “Labor of Love: The Theology of Work in First

and Second Thessalonians”, Southwestern Journal of Theology, 59/2, Spring 2017, 216–218.

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