“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
British statesman Lord Acton was wise in that observation.
So were our founding fathers.
The reason this democratic republic has endured so many crises that have crippled other nations throughout history is because the men who set up our government began with a right understanding of human nature. This was their wisest insight and greatest and most enduring legacy.
It was their central guiding principle.
In Federalist 51, arguing for adoption of the new Constitution, James Madison points out that “human nature” required “devices” such as checks and balances.
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary…In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Our whole system is grounded and rooted in a delicate and insightfully designed structure of countervailing limitations.
American governance was carefully crafted with mortal man in mind.
This system – the process of institutionalized give and take – has worked well and helped America weather many a political, military and social storm.
Our form of government has been tested in war, forged in cultural conflict, endured through scandal, been strengthened in depression and triumphed over the occasional and once popular demagogue.
It hasn’t always been easy. It’s never been simple. The American system is not for the impatient, the extremist or the anarchist.
It’s not for those who would abuse power and insist on their own way.
This is a conservative system of government, not a radical one. This is its greatest strength and finest hope.
Our revolution succeeded, the revolution in France descended into a bloody mess, because of the correct – and, with France, misguided – understanding of human nature.
The founders knew what would happen if power was concentrated without accountability.
It seems James Madison was a lot wiser and more circumspect than Pastor Bill Hybels and the leadership of his Willow Creek Church.
What a tragedy.
While preaching and teaching leadership and Christian ethics for years, Hybels was abusing, weakening and corrupting leadership in his own life and in the life of the church he founded and loved.
Hybels took advantage of his prominent position to exploit what should have been chaste and professional relationships with women in his church. This admired evangelical leader acted despicably as a sexual predator and a lecher.
This happened because Hybels and the elders of his church did not have a system of checks and balances, neglected accountability, ignored the natural propensity to sin, naively trusted individual judgment and worshipped a man.
In their founding pastor, Willow Creek either didn’t recognize the human condition or overlooked it.
It has resulted in a public and private grief that has damaged Christianity, hurt women, disillusioned faith and given at least a temporary victory to Satan.
Temporary, because the devil’s delight shall be short-lived.
The gates of hell shall not ultimately prevail against Willow Creek. God will restore and strengthen the church and Willow Creek will emerge from this present crisis hopefully a wiser, stronger, more mature and deeper congregation.
God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness – his awesome power to cleanse and renew – will give Willow Creek a second chance. Let us rejoice in that. And let us be reminded of what we face within.
But for the grace of God, any one of us could be Bill Hybels. Without the check and balance of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our conscience, we would fall.
We share that ever-present and inexplicable nature to sin.
The brilliant men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 may not all have been born again Christians but they had a deep reverence for the truth of the Bible, especially when it came to morality and the fallen human predisposition.
“The heart is deceitful above all things,” we read in Jeremiah 17:9, “and desperately wicked. Who can know it?”
And who can trust it, the founders would add.
Throughout the scriptures, we read the fascinating stories of the rise and fall of men and women. We see recorded the examples of power and pride. The Bible doesn’t whitewash or sanitize man’s inner struggles with his own passions and selfish will. It reveals them, that we may be wise.
In these stories we see ourselves. In God’s redemption, we find our hope.
Bill Hybels is another cautionary tale now written in the lesson book of life. He’s got plenty of company in the Old and New Testaments. Like King David, may he find the restoration of the joy of his salvation and the creation of a clean heart.
Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of this world – the power and the glory of great position – if he’d only bow and worship the prince of this world.
Jesus resisted that temptation.
The devil never stopped.
When the people would make him an earthly king at the apex of his popularity, Jesus withdrew to a quiet place. He would not be beguiled or deceived or misled.
Jesus didn’t trust the raves of the crowds. John says Jesus “knew human nature. No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like” (John 2:24-25).
To know ourselves as we truly are is one of the wisest lessons you and I can ever learn.