By Dr. David Schnittger, President, Southwest Prophecy Ministries
The 1980s brought news of a spate of high profile corruption cases regarding prominent Christian ministries. In 1987, PTL TV Preacher Jim Bakker, was not only caught in an adulterous relationship with an employee but also convicted of massive financial corruption which sent him to prison. The following year Pentecostal evangelist Jimmy Swaggart was exposed for cavorting with prostitutes, and his very public confession greatly reduced the size and influence of his ministry. More recently, reports of massive financial corruption at TBN came to light. News of prominent Christian leaders involved in immoral lifestyles and unethical financial dealings bring shock and disappointment to their followers and disrepute on the cause of Christ to a watching world.
The purpose of this series of articles, which will appear in THE FRONT LINE column over the next several weeks, is to examine the “forbidden” subject of “Corruption in Christian Leadership.” This series is based on my 40 years of experience in full-time vocational Christian ministry, both in local churches and in parachurch organizations. It is also based on my training, having earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in Pastoral Training. Most importantly, it is based on almost 50 years of study of the Word of God as it relates to biblical anthropology. Perhaps you have been a victim of abusive “Christian leaders” either in your church, place of business or in your family. I believe this series will aid in your understanding and healing.
Let me begin by stating that corruption among those in places of “religious” authority is nothing new. We find some prominent examples in Scripture of those in authority over God’s people misusing their position for power and privilege. This article will deal with the corruption of King Saul in the realm of government as well as religious corruption as seen in the lives of Levitical priests Hophni and Phineas, the sons of Eli.
King Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, was the first king of Israel. When Samuel, last of the judges became old, the people demanded a king that they might be like the nations around them (1 Samuel 8). In acceding to the people’s worldly request God provided the Israelites with exactly the kind of king they desired. Though Saul was a man of great ability as an administrator and a warrior Saul acted not in the power and wisdom of the Lord but in dependence on his own judgment and strength. This led to eventual disaster for himself and his family.
Saul’s first great failure was that of usurping the priestly office by offering a sacrifice on the altar at Gilgal (I Sam 13). His second failure was outright disobedience by sparing king Agag and the best of the animals (1 Sam 15). However, it was Saul’s actions toward his anointed successor David that most fully demonstrates Saul’s progressive corruption. After David’s victory over Goliath and his subsequent victories over the Philistines, David’s popularity among the Israelites began to eclipse that of Saul. Saul reacts first with jealousy, then with rage and violence (1 Sam 18:5-16). This behavior is attributed to an “…evil spirit from God [that] came upon Saul…”(I Sam 18:10). Some commentators speculate that Saul actually became “mentally ill” because of his irrational attitudes and behavior toward David, who had nothing but love and loyalty toward King Saul.
Saul’s corruption resulted in his son-in-law David having to flee the kingdom and run for his life for seven years (1 K 18-20). Because the high priest Ahimelech had aided David (I Sam 21-22), Saul had the whole priestly family at Nob slaughtered (I Sam 21-22). Although David twice spared Saul’s life, the king failed to recognize in this the warning of God and continued on his way to final destruction (1 Sam 24, 26). The final straw in Saul’s rebellion against God was when he consulted the witch of Endor for some word of hope in his approaching battle with the Philistines. Instead Samuel, dead for many years, appeared to pronounce Saul’s doom: “Tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me” (I Sam 28:19). The next day Saul met the Philistines on the slopes of Mount Gilboa, and there he and his sons died. In Saul, we see abuse of power toward David, that began with jealousy, then progressed to rage, violence and eventually maniacal behavior, leading to his destruction.
Let’s now turn our attention to corruption in religious leadership, as demonstrated in the lives of Hophni and Phineas, the sons of Eli. These men were all Levitical priests who served in the Tabernacle located in Shiloh. It was to this location that Hannah and her husband Elkanah came to worship and pray for a son. After God answered her prayer, she presented her son Samuel to Eli to minister in the house of God at Shiloh (1 Sam 12:1-11). The narrative then shifts to Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas. The text immediately identifies their spiritual lineage: “Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord” (1 Sam 2:12). “Belial” was a Hebrew epithet meaning “good-for-nothing” or even “evil.” So Eli had two good-for-nothing sons who were serving in the priesthood. Let’s see how these good-for-nothing, evil sons conducted themselves in the ministry.
In the first place, they stole, by force, sacrifices that were being offered to the Lord. The priests at the tabernacle were entitled to receive the beast and right thigh of the animal being sacrificed (Le 7:34), but only after the fat had been burned on the altar (Le 3:3,5). Eli’s sons ignored both requirements (I Sam 2:13-17).
Second, they had sex with women that came to the Tabernacle to worship. We read in I Samuel 2:22: “Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel; and that they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.”
As a result of their corruption in the ministry, the Lord pronounced their doom in 2 Samuel 2:25: “If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the LORD, who shall intreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the LORD would slay them.” The LORD here enunciated a most important principle, applicable in every age: Sins against God and His Word are more dangerous than sins against other people. The family of Eli was about to discover how dangerous their sins against God really were.
The Lord made good His promise when the Philistines slaughtered over 30,000 Israeli soldiers in the battle at Shiloh (I Sam 4:10). The Philistines then proceeded to slay both Hophni and Phineas, and also took the Ark of the Covenant (I Sam 4:17). When Eli heard the dreadful news, he fell backward, broke his neck and died (I Sam 4:18). To top it all off, the widow of Phineas went into labor upon hearing the devastating news, and “…she named the child, Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband” (I Sam 4:21).
We see from these two examples, one of a civil leader and the other of religious leaders, that the potential to misuse leadership over God’s people abounds, and that the results are devastating, both to those in leadership and those they lead. In the next article, I will analyze the attitudes and behaviors of those engaged in the corruption of Christian leadership.