The story has almost attained myth status in our culture. Brainy, often-bullied, tragically-parentless adolescent has accidental encounter with dangerously powerful lab experiment. Bitten by an unnaturally fortified spider, he soon begins to develop spider-like qualities himself. He discovers that he has faster-than-human reflexes, can climb walls, and can do amazing things with webs. (Fortunately for him, compound eyes, extra limbs, and complicated new mouth parts are not part of the package.)
The youth struggles to come to terms with his new-found abilities and how his life must change. In most versions of the story, he has a conversation with his foster father, Uncle Ben, who delivers the famous aphorism: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The good uncle was almost right.
The voice of wisdom in the tale correctly recognized that power and responsibility go together. And certainly when individuals come upon power unexpectedly they ought to ponder what responsibilities they must also have. But by putting power first, Uncle Ben expressed a popular misunderstanding—a reversal of the actual order of things. And because we are so prone to be confused about power, the difference is important. Scripture reveals that responsibility comes first, and then power. And this is true for power in the sense of ability as well as power in the sense of authority.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God….for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. (ESV, Rom. 13:4–6)
Paul’s reasoning here is clear: God designed that some individuals should have the responsibility of serving as “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” To enable them to accomplish that task, He gave them authority—specifically the power of the sword. The job came first, then the power to accomplish it.
Does this pattern apply to power everywhere else it occurs? Consider three other passages.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. … Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. (ESV, Genesis 2:15–20)
“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. … Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (ESV, Matthew 25:14–21)
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (ESV, Romans 14:12)
Clearly, all of life is a stewardship. God designs and builds each individual to accomplish particular tasks and grants them ability and authority accordingly. So everyone has responsibility and everyone has authority in some areas. Government officials have authority, managers and supervisors have authority, pastors have authority, parents have authority, husbands have authority—even children have authority. They have the responsibility of governing their inner lives as stewards of what has been given to them and, as they mature, they have increasing authority to govern their outward actions as well.
Responsibility always precedes power.
If it’s true that God always assigns responsibilities first, then grants authority to match, this arrangement has important implications for how we think about power.
- Power must never be sought for its own sake. We must first recognize responsibility then pursue and use the means for accomplishing it faithfully.
- As a tool ordained by God, power does not corrupt. People corrupt power. Humans seek power without first embracing responsibility—or later seek to throw off the responsibility while retaining the power. The moment power exceeds responsibility, either in reality or in our attitudes, we have corrupted it and it has become illegitimate.
- We should view differences in the power people possess as blessing, not as injustice or inequity. Plants blossom rather than dropping rain; clouds rain but do not produce fruit. It’s not only the unchangeable way of things; it’s good. If I do not have a particular responsibility, I do not have the power that goes with it. Resenting that is like resenting gravity.
- We must exercise power while having its purpose and limits constantly in mind. If it exists for the purpose of accomplishing specific responsibilities—responsibilities to serve God and others—I am never free to use it as I please. It’s a tool for the service of others.
- Abuse of power cannot be fully restrained, much less cured, by external means (such as laws or accountability measures; for more on this, see Dan Miller’s “Law or Leaders”). The cure for abuse of power is the attitude that embraces responsibility first and uses power as expression of faithfulness. It is possible to nurture a culture that encourages this way of thinking, but because there will always be some who shirk responsibility, there will always be some who abuse power.
As with the ancient tale of the Sword of Damocles, it’s hard to be sure if Uncle Ben’s point was that power must be used responsibly or just that power tends to bring a whole lot of trouble with it that is not necessarily obvious to others. But in both of those perspectives, something huge—the soul of power—is missing. Looking at power in a genuinely Christian way reveals that it is both deeply purposeful and deeply personal.
So if I can send a message to Uncle Ben in that imaginary place where constructed characters live, I’d say “Ben, try it this way: ‘With great responsibility comes great power.’”
Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.