Eli’s Sin Will Be The Death of Your Church

preistGod despises bad pastors.

In the book of 1 Samuel, three corrupt priests receive a large amount of screen time. Eli and his worthless sons are condemned in 1 Samuel 2:12-16, and again in 1 Samuel 2:17-36, and again in 1 Samuel 3:11-24. And all of 1 Samuel 4 is dedicated to their destruction. They are mentioned more than Hannah, Jesse, and many other names that we are familiar with. Yet, we talk about them very little. I too was unaware of how much screen time they received until I started preaching though 1 Samuel.

Let’s talk about them.

What is their great sin? Eli’s sons stole God’s sacrifices. They picked the choicest meats. When God fearing people refused to defer to the priest, Eli’s sons threatened their church members with physical violence. They would say, “No you must give it to me now, and it not, I will take it by force (1 Sam. 2:16).” Taking note of their abuses, God declared that 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 (1 Sam. 2:17).” And God deems these men beyond hope and kills them (1 Sam. 3:14; 4:11).

And though Eli’s sons experience the wrath of God, Eli received the majority of the blame. The prophet in 1 Samuel 2 was sent to Eli and asked Eli bluntly, “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I command for my dwelling, and honor your sons above my by fatting yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel (1 Sam. 2:29)?”  God kills Eli, wipes out his family, and takes the Ark of God away from the tabernacle because Eli loves his sons more than God.

However, we should not write off Eli has some super-villain who always had it out for righteousness, love, and mercy. He was not going around pouring pepper in people’s coffee, slapping babies, and getting drunk every night. He blessed Hannah (1 Sam 1:17). He trained Samuel. He was not all bad. But when pushed came to shove, he chose to honor his sons instead of God. Instead of condemning his sons and overseeing their execution, Eli joined them. Consequently, he doomed himself, his family, and his ministry to destruction.

The Scottish theolog Alexander Maclaren noted:

But all was marred by a fatal lack of strong, stern resolve to tolerate no evil which he ought to suppress. Good, weak men, especially when they let foolish tenderness hinder righteous severity, bring terrible evils on themselves, their families, and their nation.

I fear many of our churches are dying for just this reason. These men are not all bad. These pastors preach some decent sermons. They show up at the hospital from time to time. But when sin arises in their midst, they look the other way. They lack the resolve to meaningfully apply what they preach.

Sure, they may encourage people to try to fix their marriage instead of divorcing; they may encourage the drunk to stop drinking; and, they may encourage the abuser to stop being angry. But if their light advise is rejected by the congregant, they back off like Eli did (1 Sam. 2:22-25). They refuse to discipline the man who is leaving his wife to pursue the sexier more understanding girl down the street. They refuse to bring a second witness to the drunk’s house to call him to change. They refuse to put out the sexual immoral, the covetous, the angry, the thieving ,the arrogant, and the prideful.

After all, won’t people talk? Won’t people get angry and leave? Won’t people in the community think our church is harsh, unkind, and unloving? Won’t people stop attending and stop giving? If we value the worship and holiness of God more than the feelings of men and women, we will lose the buts in our seats and dollar in our bank account. We can’t risk offending their people.

Thinking the above, many pastors refuse to address the unchecked sin in their congregation. They refuse to talk about sin outside of Sunday morning. They refuse to meaningfully counsel with those overcome with sin. They refuse to bring unrepentant sinners before the church, acting as if Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 7 did not exist. They refuse to honor God in heaven more than the people in their pews. And though God is gracious, he will eventually crush those who lead his church to make much of the emotions of men and women. God will not let Christian leaders mock his name forever. God will act; he will depose pastors and remove churches.

Brothers and sisters, I believe most of our SBC churches are in decline for this very reason. Many of the pastors in our convention are more concerned about not offending Susie, Sally, and Jim Bob than they are about worshiping God. And sadly, most of these pastors and their hand-selected leaders have no plans to change course. After all, they deem their failure to address sin to be mark of spiritual maturity. Ah how peaceful their dead churches seem to be.

“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump (1 Cor. 5:6)?”

Because these pastors do not address sin, their congregations become more and more sinful. People like Eli’s son begin to dominate business meetings, Sunday school classes, and benevolence ministries. Soon, the whole church is driven by man-centered goals and the gospel fades into the background. Those who love Jesus are shown the door.

Admittedly, most pastors will not stand idly-bye as their churches slide into decline. They will launch a new small group ministry. They will rebrand an existing program. And, they will seek to update the music ministry, calling the choir director their “Creativity Team Leader.” (Goosebumps anyone?)

But will these pastors make the glory of God the primary thing? Will they recover their first love? Will they risk all to obey and honor God? Sadly, the answer is no. As a result of their leadership, their church will be obliterated. God does not honor those who mock his word.

Brothers and sisters until we care about the glory of God, we have no reason to hope for change. We have no reason to expect our dying churches will once again breathe the life of the gospel. Evangelism programs won’t save us. As James MacDonaled noted,

Placing evangelistic ministries above the mission of the God’s glory is the single most destructive error in the church today.”

Cooperation with other SBC entities at the state and national level won’t save us. And updated contextualization strategies won’t save us. Repentance will save us. Once again honoring God above all else will save us!

God spent a lot of time discussing Eli and his sons, because he is deeply concerned about his glory and hates those who love people more than God. Are you willing to make the glory of God your main concern? Are you wiling to call you pastor or pastors to do that? Or are you content to wait for the coming judgment? God despises bad pastors.  Do you? Their churches will die. Will yours?