But Samuel was ministering before the Lord—a boy wearing a linen ephod.
1 Samuel 2:18 (NIV)
As a follower of Jesus, I have been both grieved and incensed as stories continue to break regarding rampant, systemic child abuse that was both pervasive and systematically covered up by the Roman Catholic Church. No one really knows how pervasive it was nor how long it has been going on. The system still has its wagons circled all the way to the Vatican.
And, it’s not just the Roman Catholic Church. The Southern Baptist Denomination recently released a report of all the cases of child abuse and sexual assault that they had been keeping under wraps for years. To their credit, the leaders not only owned up to the truth, but also released a list of all pastors, leaders, and/or employees who were accused of sexual abuse over two decades. It is over 200 pages long.
I was a young man when I made the observation that ministry is a profession. A person with no real spiritual calling, gift, or even faith can go to school, get a theology degree, and get a job leading a church. Along my journey, I’ve met a few that fit this very description. They aren’t serving God. They’re just earning a living.
I would later go on to observe in my study of history that ever since the organic Jesus Movement became the both religious and political institution known as the Holy Roman Empire, professional ministry was conferred with a certain amount of worldly power. The higher up in the institution the more absolute the power became. You know what has been said about power: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Give a man a robe, a title, a dark place, and the perceived power of salvation, damnation, and absolution over a scared and weak child. Bad things happen. Sadly, the stories of Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacarias prove that I’ll find examples of this in any religious institution. The church is not only filled with sinners, it’s led by them as well.
Today’s chapter is a testament to the fact that the problem has existed forever. In the Hebrew religious system God set up through Moses, the priesthood was held by descendants of Aaron. The Tabernacle was served and maintained by the tribe of Levi. You didn’t choose the role, you were born into it. And so we end up with a couple of hypocritical dead-beat priests named Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of the High Priest Eli.
The author of 1 Samuel is careful to contrast the two adult sons of the High Priest and the boy Samuel:
Hophni and Phinehas demanded that people give them their uncooked meat designated for sacrifice. The fat was supposed to be burned as part of the sacrifice and the meat was boiled to get rid of the blood. Eli’s sons threatened pilgrims and worshippers to give them the uncooked and unsacrified meat so they could enjoy a nice, rare steak on the grill.
“But Samuel was ministering before the LORD – a boy wearing a linen ephod.” (vs 18)
Hophni and Phinehas also used their positions of power to coerce and seduce, or perhaps it was that they actually assaulted women who served at the entrance to the Tabernacle just like modern-day priests and pastors who abuse their power and position to prey rather than to pray.
“Meanwhile the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD.” (vs. 21)
Eli confronted his sons, rebuked them, and demanded that they change their ways. They were unrepentant and refused to listen to their father.
“And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with people.” (vs. 26)
In the quiet this morning, I couldn’t help but meditate on this contrast. The paradigm that Jesus created with his initial followers was that of spiritual disciples whose lives had been committed and changed by the indwelling Holy Spirit and a dedication to love, humility, generosity, and spiritual discipline. His followers then passed it on to disciples who followed them who then passed it on to their own disciples.
When the organism became an institution Spirit was replaced by human knowledge, calling was replaced with credentials, humility was replaced with power, discipleship was replaced with academia, and spiritual authority was replaced by human bureaucracy. In the forty years that I’ve been a disciple of Jesus, I’ve watched many of the mainline church institutions and denominations splinter and implode. I personally don’t think this is a bad thing at all.
Personally, I have found myself avoiding institutional entanglements on my earthly journey. I like being a wayfaring stranger following Jesus where His Spirit leads me. And so, I press on pursuing that Spirit leading with as much love, humility, and spiritual discipline as I can increasingly muster.
May I never be a Hophni or Phinehas.
May I ever be a Samuel.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.