Moral failure is a euphemism that pastors bring up in statements when
they are dealing with a variety of issues, but particularly things related to
illicit sexual relationships. It seems
that these sorts of things started coming to light in the 1980s. Men like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted
Haggard were all pastors who had precipitous falls from popularity after their
secret lives were exposed. Since then,
there have been scandals involving Hillsong, Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, and
It is easy to question whether any Christian leaders are
morally upstanding or maybe if the leaders of the past were simply better at
hiding their improprieties.
Moral Failure in religious leaders is not something that is
new. There is a story at the beginning
of the book of I Samuel about two brothers, Hophni and Phineas, which has many
of the same themes of these modern situations.
It is instructive to look at it and think about what light it sheds on
our issues in the church setting.
Hophni and Phineas were the two sons of the High Priest of
Israel, Eli. We don’t know much about
them as individuals. The author of I
Samuel addresses them as a single unit in the first few chapters of the book and
does so in decidedly negative fashion.
Eli was the High Priest, but as he aged, his sons began
assuming more and more responsibility around the Tent of Meeting. As they did so, Scripture tells us that they
began to sleep with the women who were serving in the Tabernacle.
More than that, they began taking meat from the sacrifices
before it was sacrificed, even though this was against the Law. If any worshiper protested their behavior,
they would use force against him to get their own way.
At the time that all of this was going on at the Tabernacle,
there was a war going on between Israel and the Philistines and Israel was
losing. Some Israelite field commander had the
bright idea that bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the frontlines would be a
way to win a victory.
Hophni and Phineas accompanied the Ark to the scene of the
battle and Samuel records that when it arrived there was a great improvement in
morale of the troops. The troops cheered
as though they had already won the battle and who could blame them when the God
of the Universe was on their side. It
was at this precise moment that the Philistines decided to attack.
Instead of victory, the Israelites experienced a stunning
defeat. Both of Eli’s sons were killed
in the battle and the Ark of God was captured by the Philistines.
So ends this cautionary history from the beginning of the
books of Samuel. It appears there are
different messages for modern audiences found within this story.
We Select the Wrong Men for Leadership
In the case of Hophni and Phineas, they were chosen for leadership
simply because they were the sons of Eli.
The title of priest was passed down from Moses’ brother Aaron to his
Today, most church leaders are selected either based on
family connections or because of charisma.
It makes sense that people who are well spoken and good at turning a
phrase would become preachers. Of course, these leaders claim to have an upright character and a close relationship with God, but this seems
secondary to other qualities when leaders are selected.
It is helpful to look at the qualities that Paul says an
“overseer” in the church should possess.
In Titus 1:5-9 he doesn’t talk about charisma or good public
speaking. Instead, he lists being above
reproach, not arrogant, not quick to anger, sober, not money focused,
self-controlled, and holy.
Church leadership is about character and connection with
God, not charisma.
Corrupt Leaders Abuse Their Power
It is obvious, but with church leadership comes great
responsibility. In such a position, a
person has great opportunities to encourage and strengthen people within the congregation. On the other hand, there is also a great
opportunity to enrich a leader’s pocketbook, enlarge his ego, and give him
power over the people within his church.
When this power is abused, it often shows itself in the misuse of church
finances or in sexual liaisons within the church.
The end result is severe damage to the message and
ministry of that church – it also has far reaching effects on people outside of the church's willingness to accept the Gospel message.
The only antidote to prevent this abuse of power is for
leaders to humble themselves and make themselves accountable to others within
Corrupt Leaders See Themselves as Good
Few people see themselves as evil and church leaders are no
exception – even when they have done salacious things. They might admit that they aren’t perfect, they
will confess to a few faults, but they believe that the good things that have
resulted from their ministry far outweigh any of the negatives that might come
from their personal failings.
Rationalization is the tool which humans use to give
themselves space to continue bad behavior.
More than this, the people who surround a corrupt leader
often fear that the damage caused to Jesus' kingdom by revelations about that
leader’s failures warrant keeping them a secret.
History makes two things obvious. First, nothing is kept secret forever. Eventually, all these things will come
out. Second, the fallout from the cover
up is often worse than the misdeeds themselves.
Christians do not believe in some cosmic balance, in which
good deeds and bad deeds are placed on opposite sides and compared. Instead, they believe in a constant striving
The fact that you can preach a wonderful, encouraging sermon
on Sunday in no way balances the fact that you treat the people who work with
you poorly the rest of the week. Sinking
yourself into charitable efforts is a good thing, but it doesn’t make up for
the devastation if your spouse finds out that you have been unfaithful.
Immoral behavior has no place in leadership – even if
that leader is extremely intelligent, bringing new people into the church, or
is writing extremely deep books.
Corrupt Leaders Eventually Try to Manipulate God
The story of Hophni and Phineas makes clear that they saw
their priestly position as something that they could use to their own
advantage. They got access to women and
to better groceries than they might have in a different occupation.
When the army called for the Ark to be brought to the
frontlines, Hophni and Phineas didn’t seem to hesitate. Whereas their father, Eli, had severe anxiety around this mission, everyone else saw God as someone they could
manipulate into taking their side against the Philistines.
It is unlikely that the sons of Eli dreamed of defeat. They never pondered the capture of the Ark,
or for that matter their own deaths.
Despite warnings from their father and prophets, they never thought that
God would cease to protect His people.
God’s Judgment is Coming
The sons of Eli died unexpectedly in battle. Many Christian leaders have fallen
precipitously when they were at their most popular.
The fact that God is merciful means that he gives humans
more opportunity to repent. In the end,
though, the things done in secret will be proclaimed from the housetops. The results of judgment are devastating.
When judgment finally falls, it is sudden, surprising, and
Leaders Never Fall Alone
Hophni and Phineas died in a battle where 30,000 soldiers of
Israel also died. More than that, the
worship of God was totally disrupted by the capture of the Ark of God.
At the end of this story, we read that Phineas’ wife went into
labor at the news of her husband’s death and the Ark’s capture. I Samuel 4:19-22 tells us that she died in
childbirth. Before her death, she named
her newborn son “Ichabod,” which means glory departed.
With the capture of the Ark of the Covenant, the glory had
departed from Israel.
Truth to tell, God’s glory had departed some years
before. The religious leaders had not
been serving God, but only themselves.
No one had noticed until the Philistines captured this relic of the
Israelites’ once holy past.
So it is with any church that is led by someone who does not
have a true and deepening relationship with God. Great will be their fall and woe to any
innocent bystanders who find themselves too close when that fall finally comes.
People are good at hiding their faults, but it is paramount
that churches make certain that their leaders are full of holiness and are
totally focused on the things of God.
Anything less in a church leader is inviting ruin – not only
for that man, but also for the church that he is leading.