What does God think about abusive church leaders?

What does God think about abusive church leaders?

We recently applied the idea of covenant love to faithful leadership. But what do we do if leadership isn't faithful? In this guest blog, Alice Waters, ministry trainee at Crossway Stratford, helps us answer this question through 1 Samuel 2.

1 Samuel 2:12-36

In the last year, several devastating stories have emerged about church leaders who have abused their power. Leaders who once were trusted and respected, but now are known for sinning terribly against people under their care. Maybe you’re reading this and you’ve not heard these stories – this is news to you. But maybe you’re someone who has seen them.

Maybe these stories have been on your mind a lot and you have a lot of questions. Or maybe you’re reading and for you this is deeply personal and painful – you’ve been directly hurt by this kind of abuse. Wherever we’re coming from, one question we’ll want to ask is: What does God think about abusive church leaders? Does God care?

In 1 Samuel God gives us a clear answer to that question. 1 Samuel 2:12-36 is the story of two corrupt priests, Hophni and Phinehas, and their father Eli who fails to stop them. Have a read through the story and you’ll see they abuse their power and privilege in three main ways:

1. They interrupt and distort people’s worship of God so they can line their own stomachs (v13-16)[1]

2. They bully anyone who won’t go along with it (v16)

3. There’s a sexual element too – they sleep with women in the temple who are there to serve God (v22)[2]

These are leaders of Israel, thousands of years ago. But we can easily draw parallels to things we see today. Church leaders who line their own pockets as they teach a prosperity gospel. Church leaders who use their authority to bully and intimidate others. Church leaders who abuse their position of trust to sexually abuse men, women and children. We absolutely hate this. But what does God think? Does God care?

1 Samuel 2 tells us firmly that yes, God does care. We get little glimpses as we read through the story (v17, v25). Then God bursts into the narrative (v27) to speak a damning judgement on Eli and his household. God is angry. He hates their abuse of power. He hates their dishonour of him, the God who gave them power and privilege in the first place. So he promises to bring them low – he will remove them from being priests and they will all die young. Hophni, Phinehas, Eli – they will each be judged for the part they have played. God does care. Read into the next few chapters, and you’ll see this judgement play out. God brings these abusive leaders low.

And this isn’t a one-time thing. This is what God is like. A big theme in 1 Samuel is that God loves to lift up the lowly and he brings low those who are arrogant[3] So we can be sure that he hates abusive leadership in churches today too. We can be sure that God will bring it low – whether that happens through earthly justice here and now, or in God’s final and perfect judgement. In the meantime, what should we do when we see this type of leadership? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Talk to someone about your concerns – perhaps that’s your church safeguarding officer or another trusted leader.
  • Pray – pray for justice, pray our leaders would be humble, pray that church leaders found to be abusing their power would repent and turn back to the Lord Jesus.
  • Look for a faithful leader – God does raise up faithful church leaders, so look for those who know God and are humble before him. But greater than this, in his judgement speech to Eli, God promised to raise up a faithful leader (did you spot it in v36?). We know that promise is ultimately fulfilled in the Lord Jesus. Jesus is our faithful leader. There is nothing arrogant or abusive in him. Quite the opposite. Jesus is the servant leader who willingly laid down his life for his people.

So when we are inevitably faced with more news of abusive leadership in the church, know God hates it and he will bring it low. Then look to our perfect, faithful, servant leader Jesus and praise him for everything he is.

[1] As priests, Hophni and Phinehas were allotted meat to eat from people’s sacrifices when they came to worship God. It was a big privilege that God set out in the book of Leviticus (e.g. Lev 6:24-31, 7:31). But that’s not enough for them. There’s a strange and dubious fork ritual, then they insist on taking meat before the fat has been burnt off – the key part of the offering that was a pleasing aroma to the LORD (Lev 3:3-5) and was strictly forbidden for any man to eat (Lev 3:16). So instead of helping people worship God – their job – Hophni and Phinehas show disdain for God and use offerings meant for him to serve and feed themselves. Note, v29, that Eli too joins in with eating the meat they grab from the offerings, so much so that he’s getting fat!

[2] It’s not clear whether this is consensual sex or not. What is clear is that Hophni and Phinehas are showing contempt for God’s morals as well as his instructions for worship. The job of these women is to serve the Lord at the temple, but the priests take them and sleep with them to serve their own lustful desires instead.

[3] For a beautiful description of this, see Hannah’s celebratory prayer in 2:1-10 after God grants her a son.