At church last week, the preacher was preaching about I Samuel 3, in which God calls the child Samuel at night.
The preacher said that the high priest Eli failed to rebuke his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. According to I Samuel 2, Hophni and Phinehas kept the best part of the sacrifices for themselves, taking it by force if they deemed that necessary. They also slept with women at the door of the Tabernacle. Although Eli actually does rebuke his sons in that chapter, they do not listen to him, and God through a prophet accuses Eli of honoring his sons ahead of God and of making himself fat with sacrifices.
The preacher was saying that we ourselves may need to rebuke people who are closest to us, otherwise God will punish us along with them. Or he said something like that: his point may have been that we may suffer the consequences of the sins of the people closest to us.
Yet, the preacher also commended Eli, for all of Eli’s flaws. The preacher said that Eli did not take himself too seriously when God called Samuel. Eli was not upset that God called Samuel instead of him. Eli wanted Samuel to be receptive to God’s voice, and Eli wanted to know what God said.
The preacher also said that God does not just want to be heard, but obeyed.
Here are some thoughts:
A. There may be cases in which rebuke is necessary. But suppose that people close to us are not Christians, or adhere to other religious practices? Should we continually rebuke them for that, in fear that God will punish or withhold favor from us if we fail to do so?
In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to kill close family members who recommended the worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-11). And a single sinner in the community could bring down others, even the innocent. Consider the case of Achan in Joshua 7! Achan’s sin caused Israel to lose a battle, and God was appeased when Achan and his household were stoned (or so many interpret vv 24-25). At a church that I attended over a decade ago, that actually scared the pastor, for he thought that God still may operate that way!
That was how God operated in Old Testament times with Israel, which was a covenant community under the authority of God. Does God still operate that way in New Testament times? Two New Testament passages come to mind.
First, there is I Corinthians 7:14-15: “And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (KJV).
In some manner, the believing spouse sanctifies the unbelieving spouse and the children of the household. Here, at least, the sinners are not contaminating everyone else, but the believer is sanctifying others through his or her presence.
Second, there is I Peter 3:1-2: “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear” (KJV).
Leaving aside the question of what “subjection” to husbands means and whether that is a fair or positive organization of the household, the passage does offer insight about how believers can approach the unbelievers in their lives: by living a virtuous life. I Peter does not tell believers to nag or to rebuke continuously the non-believers in their family.
The Old Testament was one nation under God, and everyone was part of the covenant and obligated to keep it. In the New Testament, by contrast, a number of Christians found themselves married to non-believers, and they wanted to know how to behave in that situation.
All of that said, the prospect of believers having a patronizing attitude towards non-believers in their lives does repel me. I should be an example to the non-believers in my life? They are an example to me! They are stronger and more virtuous than me, in many cases!
I also have problems rebuking people over their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Religious beliefs are personal, they cannot be forced, and they seem to me to be matters of taste and opinion (but evidential Christian apologists will probably disagree with me on that, thinking Christianity has an evidential basis).
B. According to the preacher, Eli failed to rebuke his sons sufficiently, and yet Eli deserves credit for not taking himself too seriously.
Could those two personality traits actually go together? Maybe Eli was a passive, laid-back man. That would lead him to tolerate his sons’ sinful behavior, but it would also influence him not to take himself too seriously and to let someone else share the stage. Our temperament can contribute to our strengths and weaknesses!
On the other hand, Eli’s attitude towards God was arguably contradictory. Eli wanted to know what God had to say and had reverence for God. Yet, Eli did not respect God enough to stop his sons’ behavior, and Eli even profited from it by becoming fat off the sacrifices. Eli may have meant well, but he was rather weak, or he was unwilling to follow through on his commitment to God where it mattered. I have difficulty condemning Eli for this, but many in society judge those who are weak or fearful.
C. The preacher said that God not only wants to be heard, but also obeyed. Obedience is a concept that troubles me, since I am imperfect when it comes to living God’s standards. But the preacher makes sense: God’s word is brought into the realm of real life, and has its effect, when it is obeyed.