It was a bad day at church. What was supposed to be a blessed and meaningful worship experience felt like a punch in the gut.
What happened? Those in authority were selfish bullies.
We read about these leaders in 1 Samuel. Eli’s sons aptly described by the author as “worthless men” (v. 12), were serving at the temple. It pains us to read that these leaders “did not know the Lord” (v. 12). In verses 13-17 we read about their shameless exploitation of their position and the people. As a worshiper was preparing the post-sacrificial portion of the peace offering for his family, a servant of the priests would pop over. These henchmen walked around with a three-pronged fork in their hands. They would walk up to the family and fish around in the pot with their fork; whatever they were able to “catch” they would keep and bring to the leaders (vv. 13-14). The priests were not starving. They already were given the breast and the right leg (Lev. 7:28-36). What’s more, these sacerdotal bullies would demand uncooked cuts from the worshiper (v. 15) prior to offering the fat portion to the Lord. It was so bad that if one had the audacity to remind the lackey that the Lord is to be honored first, the priest’s enforcer would threaten to beat them up (v. 16). Summing it all up, the writer says, “the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt” (v. 17).
Yes, it was a bad day in church. In fact, it was a bad season. These guys had no regard for the glory of God and the good of the people. They were absolutely self-consumed.
This progression toward priestly privilege and abuse in a church is subtle. It’s not like the guy with the three-pronged fork just came out of nowhere. This was the culture (v.13). Therefore, it’s helpful to identify a few patterns that emerge that may give us a hint of the type of soil that causes such stink-fruit to flourish in the covenant community. Let’s call them six problematic patterns with pastoral bullies.
1. Eclipsing God’s pre-eminence with their own
These guys were scholars in missing the point. I’m concerned for pastors who seem far more impressed with themselves and how clever they are rather than the wisdom of God in the gospel. How can you tell? Consider what they do with the Word of God. Is it preached, or is it used as a prop to support the pastor’s selfie stick? If the whole point of life is to glorify God then certainly less could not be demanded of ministry. Some in ministry, with a zeal that rivals those in Babel, are working so hard at their platforms, making a great name for themselves, that they have forgotten the point. This whole thing is about Jesus, not us. Remember, he must increase, and we must decrease. It’s not the other way around.
2. Using ministry to serve self rather than serving God and others
Eli’s worthless sons saw people as their servants rather than as people they could serve. As soon as a pastor flips this switch and sees people and ministry for himself rather than himself for them, he is in trouble. We sometimes forget that the word “ministry” actually means service. Our whole lives are to be service. Paul says that those in ministry are to be regarded as servants (1 Cor. 4:1). Jesus requires all who would follow him (especially those who lead and may be tempted otherwise) to be a servant of all. After all, this is how he lived and how he went out (Mark 10:43-45). Pastors must beware that they don’t see themselves as far above the sheep and don’t keep themselves far removed from the sheep. They are to be servants of God and others.
3. Being comfortable with innovation
Who had the brilliant idea to walk around with a fork and poach people’s food? That wasn’t in the Bible. Moses never wrote that. I’m sure some genius had a reasonable explanation why it should be done. Such is the case throughout the ages. Somebody has a “good” idea that seems agreeable, so they do it. The only problem is it’s not what God has said. This principle applies today; we are generally quick to innovate and slow to interrogate. Quick to do something that sounds like a good idea rather than asking if God’s Word provides further or contradictory instruction. Take for example the modern phenomenon of a church having multiple campuses where the preacher’s sermon is piped in over video. Where did this come from? Why are we doing this? Where do we get this from the Scriptures? What does this do to the intent of a church gathered together in a specific place to do a specific thing? Our reflex, especially as 21st-century Westerners is to embrace innovation so long as it grows our influence or reach. But what if such innovation fundamentally changes what we are supposed to be and do? Innovation is not always bad, but it’s not always good either. Ministers are not businessmen. Therefore, we should be careful and not so comfortable with innovation. It may just get us and our churches in trouble. Stay close to the text.
4. Suffocating authority
Whom were these guys accountable to? Eli wasn’t doing anything about it. The people couldn’t seem to do anything. As a result, the tyrannical reign of these men raged on, suppressing the people with a suffocating authority. Sadly, this type of thing still happens in churches today. Rather than seeing their authority as derived and restricted to the Word, some pastors think they have an inherent and universal authority. This type of leadership crowds out the Word and oversteps its bounds, blowing out candles with pastoral fiat in sections of a person’s life where the minister has no place to go. Often such a pastor will use the Word to bash others while not himself submitting to it. This hypocrisy exasperates the believer and sucks out the joy from the congregation. This type of bullying looks more like the Roman occupation that Jesus warned against rather than the servant leadership that Jesus himself modeled (Mk. 10).
5. Little regard for the gravity of ministry
Eli’s sons didn’t seem much to feel the weight of ministry. If they did, they wouldn’t have been sleeping with women in the temple or pilfering people’s portions of the offering. Ministry is about two of the weightiest matters in the world: God’s glory and people’s souls. If we lose a grip on these two, then we are done. Everything a pastor does must be calibrated by the reality that what he does in ministry either does or does not glorify God. Further, we must remember that eternity is determined by what people do with the Word of God. We can hinder or help people here. This includes not only what we preach but also how we live and lead in the church. Ministry is weighty stuff.
6. Getting over the offering of the Lord
This is what scares me about this passage: these guys were not affected by the offering of the Lord. If the pastor ever forgets that he is a great sinner and that God is a great Savior, then he is in trouble. May it never be said about us that we’ve disregarded the offering of the Lord and trampled underfoot the blood of the covenant. The blood-stained cross of Calvary was for us. The cries of desolation were for sinners like us. The Lamb of God was slain for us. God forbid that pastors feel comfortable sanitizing, relativizing, or otherwise obscuring the deafening glory of the cross. By God’s grace and for the good of his church, may pastors never get over it.
The pastoral bully has forgotten the Word of God and the worth of God. No wonder he has little regard for the people of God. May the Chief Shepherd protect his flock from such men in our day.