It’s been with God’s people for thousands of years. You might say it began with Adam and Eve scandalously eating the forbidden fruit. Then there was Abraham’s scandalous habit of trying to save his own skin by allowing local warlords to take his wife into their harems to bed at will. Or the most notable example in Scripture: King David seducing Bathsheba, getting her pregnant and then killing her husband rather than face up to what he did; the nation found out anyway.
Didn’t anyone in the Bible ever try to head off scandal before it became full-blown?
At least one person did. In 1 Samuel 2, Eli the high priest and his sons served in the tabernacle of the Lord, charged with administering the sacrificial offerings the people brought and leading them in the ways of the Lord. The problem wasn’t with the people. It was with Eli’s sons. They mistreated the offerings and they mistreated the people.
First, they were greedy for material goods:
Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord. Now it was the practice of the priests that, whenever any of the people offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.”
If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned* first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” (1 Samuel 2:14-17.)
In addition to their material greed was their sexual lust:
Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; the report I hear spreading among the Lord’s people is not good.” (1 Samuel 2:22-24.)
Eli’s sons rejected their father’s rebuke – their father who was also their high priest – and found themselves under the wrath of God in consequence. (1 Samuel 2:27-36, 4:1-11.)
Hope for the Scandalous
The lesson from these first few chapters of 1 Samuel is not merely that scandalizing God has dire consequences. The lesson is also that there is hope for the scandalous, even those who scandalize from positions of church leadership:
- The pastor who enrolls with a website that facilitates people hooking up to have an affair.
- The seminary professor who sleeps with students semester after semester.
- The television and online preacher who hoards the donations called for incessantly in every broadcast and podcast, using the donations to live a lifestyle of wealth and fame.
- The famous pastor, speaker and writer who is discovered to have plagiarized in the most recent book.
The hope for church leaders caught in scandal is not that they are let off the hook merely by virtue of being leaders. That would essentially be another instance of saying “Rules are for peasants.” To the contrary:
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1.)
Yet, as the passage goes on to note, this is not a judgment demanding perfection:
We all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2.)
So where did Eli’s sons go wrong? If everyone is prone to stumble then what’s the big deal?
It is in their rejection of a Godly rebuke and effort to guide them back to his ways. Their rejection, even more than their sins of greed and lust, showed they did not belong to God in the first place.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. …
They [false teachers] went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. (1 John 2:15-16, 19.)
Where then is the hope of those who belong to God and are caught in error? It is in Christ, who sometimes acts through fellow believers to turn his people away from sin:
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20.)
Those entrusted as pastors and teachers of God’s people are held to a high standard, but are also given the opportunity to repent and change in response to a fellow believer giving Godly correction. Yet too often such correction is spurned by the one needing correction.
The lesson from Eli’s sons is that their condemnation under God’s wrath not only after they reveled in their lifestyle of sin but also after rejecting a Godly correction. If they had accepted that correction and repented of their sin they would have escaped the wrath of God.
That’s how you know who is of God and who is not. The one who rejects God’s ways never belonged to him in the first place. Jesus said:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23.)
“Evildoers.” A strong word for those who appear religious but do not belong to Jesus.
For those who do belong to Jesus, here’s how to handle scandal: when correction comes, embrace it (James 5:19-20); repent and turn to God for guidance (James 1:5); humble yourself before God, who will lead you to heights of glory. (James 4:10.)
That’s the way to handle scandal.
*The law given to Moses by God required the priests to burn the fat before anyone could eat the meat of the offering. (Leviticus 3:16.) Eli’s sons rejected the people’s plea to follow these sacrifice ordinances, and thus willfully violated God’s law.