This arose as a quotation by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: (1)
Lord Acton took a great interest in America, considering its Federal structure the perfect guarantor of individual liberties. During the American Civil War, his sympathies lay entirely with the Confederacy, for their defense of States’ Rights against a centralized government that, by all historical precedent, would inevitably turn tyrannical. His notes to Gladstone on the subject helped sway many in the British government to sympathize with the South. After the South’s surrender, he wrote to Robert E. Lee that “I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” (2)
In 1870 came the great crisis in Roman Catholicism over Pope Pius IX’s promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Lord Acton, who was in complete sympathy on this subject with Döllinger, went to Rome in order to throw all his influence against it, but the step he so much dreaded was not to be averted. The Old Catholic separation followed, but Acton did not personally join the seceders, and the authorities prudently refrained from forcing the hands of so competent and influential an English layman. It was in this context that, in a letter he wrote to scholar and ecclesiastic Mandell Creighton, dated April 1887, Acton made his most famous pronouncement:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” (3)
We see that Lord Acton himself made a stand against the corruption in religion that results from an unhealthy accumulation of power. In Lord Acton’s day it was a stand against the man-made notion of papal infallibility. Here today I wish to take a similar stand against a parallel crisis. Whereas the Roman Catholic system has a centralized Pope which Lord Acton recused for such a power grab as papal infallibility, I wish to make the same accusation against modern Christianity where the Local Pastor is infact a defacto local pope. Unlike Acton I will step over the Theological line and call into question the Protestant (and Baptist… for those Landmark folks who claim the Baptists were never protestants) use of the leftover Clergy/Laity system that came over from Roman Catholicism and whether such a system can be defended biblically.
My premise is that any man who is given authority over others will, if left unchecked, make full use of that authority for both personal gain and personal power. The amount of corruption by this person will ultimately be decided by the amount of power that is available. As Lord Acton says, “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority.”
In modern Christianity most church congregations are based on a simple design. The authority is vested in the persons of the (so called) clergy, usually at the consent of, or at least the tacit agreement of the (so called) laity. This Catholic Idea of Clergy/Laity came from the teachings of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Cyprias, and Augustine who created and promoted the whole “Christian” class/ caste system. While not addressing the theological issues of this problem Lord Acton actually does a marvelous job of attacking just such a system, “There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” As true today as when Acton said it.
In Ephesians 4: 11-16 it says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
In this passage we do not see offices to be filled but gifts that are given to “equip the saints for the work of ministry…”
Yet, by and large, most “churches” see the gifts as offices and positions to be filled. This idea of ecclesiastical offices would have been reinforced in the King James translation of Scripture especially since, thanks to Henry the VIII in 1534, the English monarch was also the head of the English church. The translators would be sure to frame their wording to reflect the offices of the church in deference to their King. Therefore, we see that the offices of the clergy were firmly established in a translation that was Authorized by a political ruler who was also head of the English Church at the time. This is the beginning of the protestant veneration of the person who holds the office rather than the service and the doing of ministry by the gifts given to the body of believers. This kills the spirit of service and produces professional “office holders” that I refer to as hired guns.
“There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” This has become a real problem in the churches of America today. Most churches today have a “pastor” who oversees the entire opperation, and there may be a deacon board that is either working with the pastor or against him… either way it is doubtful that either “office” is operating biblically. With the advent of the Professional Clergy there has been a rise in the cult of personality as well. The Professional is seen in a light that is clearly not biblical and we see that wheather by “influence” or by acquired “authority” these men rise to prominence. Even the small rural churches are patterened after this and the pastor is looked on as a man of authority over the congregation. And there is the rub.
The man holding the office is elevated above all the rest and his position is considered more sancitfied, more holy, and more powerful simply because of the office. This is heady stuff even for the best of men to guard against. The drug of power is very seductive and there are few men who do not succumb to it’s influence. At some point men holding these offices begin to believe in their own positions and begin to use both the assumed authority that the office brings and the power and influence it affords, for their own purposes. The Christian world is replete with tales of those who have abused their (so called)”offices” just as often and just as wickedly as any of the pedophile Priests in the Catholic church. That is the problem, the office creates a caste system where the Clergy is the ruling caste and the Laity is the subordinate serving caste reinforcing the political framework in the religious setting. At best men succumb to the evil over time; at worst men of poor character seek the office for the very reason we are discussing, to acquire power. Once the seduction with power begins the level of corruption will be commensurate with the level of power that is available.
Is there a cure? I believe that there is but it is so radical I doubt very seriously it would ever be adopted. The first step would be, to do away with the professional Clergy. Practically speaking this will never happen. The established Clergy and the pattern for their existence is too powerful. Never, of their own free will, would any of the professional “pastors” ever give up their position of power. Even the meanest paid rural “pastor” would not willingly give up “his power” over even the smallest group of people. It is not about the money, heaven knows many, if not most, small congregations pay at or below the poverty level. No, it is about power to influence and control a group of people and mold their worldviews.(This is the danger of the passive approach to worship where a one-way conversation takes place. The only view allowed in these meetings is the pastor’s. This affords almost total control by the speaker to inject his own views as ‘god breathed’. Whatever the “anointed”, “man of god” says while behind the “sacred desk” will be seen as, and accepted as, the “word of God”.) That is an especially strong allure for men of lesser character who are drawn to such positions. I have no doubt that there are good men who are trying to do what is right in these positions and I commend them and pray for them but the position itself is the enabler, the seductress; and even the best of men will, sooner or later, succumb to the temptation of power. We see a picture of this in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings Trillogy”. As a Ring Bearer, Frodo Baggins had an awful burden to carry yet, even he failed in the end and succumbed to the power of the ring; unable to destroy it he claimed it for himself. The thread through-out the tale is about power, the use and the abuse of it. Many who would have taken the ring would have done so out of a nobel purpose but would have been corrupted by it’s power and their corruption would (like Sauron) only be limited by the (unlimited) power of the ring.