Not only did these guys prey on vulnerable women (and engage in sex with them right in the doorway of the house of God), but they also were involved in the worst kind of financial exploitation. They cunningly manipulated people while taking offerings; then they misused the gifts for their own sordid gain.
Does slick-talking preachers with zipper problems and big expense accounts sound familiar?
Eli’s fatal flaw reminds me of a problem we face today. He was timid about confronting sin. He tip-toed around the real problems. He lived in denial—at a time when the church was in moral crisis.
Even though Eli questioned his sons’ behavior and warned them of the consequences, he did not remove them from their positions. Even though the people in the pews were shocked by Hophni and Phinehas’ sexual escapades and financial shenanigans, Eli let his privileged boys go right on taking offerings and raping parishioners. Year after year he allowed his sons to mock God and infect people with their corruption.
The story does not end well. Because sin had entered the camp of God’s people, the ark of God’s presence was captured by the Philistines, and Hophni and Phinehas were killed in the raid. The Bible paints an ugly picture of the scene when Eli hears the news of his son’s deaths: “Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for he was old and heavy” (1 Sam. 4:18).
That’s not a flattering obituary, especially with the mention of Eli’s obesity. Perhaps the Bible uses such graphically honest language to drive home the point that this pathetic priest was not only timid but also selfish and undisciplined in his personal life.
What does Eli have to do with us? After all, he was in the Old Testament, right?
There are plenty of people today who have adopted a theology of greasy grace and sloppy holiness. Their mantra is “mercy”. They say there is no longer any need for church discipline or moral standards in leadership.
In fact, when I wrote last week about the need for tough new policies for restoring fallen leaders, a chorus of critics on the Charisma forum claimed that I am the judgmental Pharisee.
“All have sinned, so who are we to judge if a leader has an affair,” some declared.
“If a leader is involved in some kind of sexual sin, God forgives him instantly and he can be in the pulpit the next day,” others ranted.
“Leaders in the New Testament church never stepped down from their positions because of sin,” another one claimed.
Among independent charismatic churches in America, we’ve developed a lovey-dovey culture that shies away from hard-line discipline and makes it easy for disgraced leaders to find new jobs fast. But I don’t see this lax attitude in the apostle Paul, who set high standards of character for all his leaders, blacklisted false teachers and even excommunicated people who continued in immorality.
Paul even went so far as to turn certain wayward leaders over to Satan so they would learn their lesson (see 1 Tim. 1:20). Sounds kind of extreme, but extreme sin requires extreme measures.
The bottom line: Godly leaders draw lines and enforce moral standards—without becoming self-righteous and unkind. Ungodly leaders, on the other hand, may appear to be nice and compassionate, but they actually are unfaithful to God if they refuse to require their spiritual sons and daughters to follow biblical standards of behavior.
We are in a moment of serious leadership crisis in the American church, and part of our problem is the sin of Eli. I am making an appeal: Will the fathers and mothers of the church please do your job? We need your rebuke and your rod of correction.
Please go to those who are exploiting God’s people financially and make them stop. Please confront those who are robbing the church for personal gain. Please go to those who are abusing others, sexually or in any other way, remove them from leadership and get them healed.
Please don’t let the Hophnis and Phinehases of today have airtime on Christian TV. Please don’t showcase them in your conferences. Please stop looking the other way when you hear about their blunders. Please restore discipline to the body of Christ.