There are a multitude of ways of going wrong in the Christian life, but Eli’s way is particularly sad. Eli was an Old Testament priest who seems to have known God and bowed to his will. When Samuel informed him of God’s judgement upon his household, Eli responded with both grace and realism: ‘It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him’ (1 Samuel 3:18).
However one glaring failure stood out in Eli — he failed to discipline his two priestly sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They were greedy men who flouted God’s Word and committed immorality (1 Samuel 2:12-17,22). In advanced old age, Eli confronted them concerning their sins. He asked them: ‘Why do you do such things?’ and tried to get them to mend their ways (1 Samuel 2:23-25). But that was as far as it went.
God was to tell the prophet Samuel that he had a contention with Eli: ‘For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows, because his sons have made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them’ (1 Samuel 3:13). As William Garden Blaikie put it, somewhat quaintly: ‘Eli was memorable for passive virtues. He could bear much, though he could dare little.’
What a sad indictment! Eli fails God in this crucial area. So too did King David. When his son Adonijah tried to seize the throne, it is said that ‘his father had not rebuked him at any time by saying “Why have you done so?” He was also very good-looking’ (1 Kings 1:6). Adonijah seems to have been a spoilt brat, and the consequences were far-reaching. So this is a sin which godly men can commit. We can have the Holy Spirit, and through Christ trust in God as Saviour and Lord, and still be held accountable for failing to discipline our children properly.
Parents or friends?
It is, of course, quite possible to be too hard on our children. We have the warning not to exasperate them (Ephesians 6:4). We can do this by being unreasonable, or inconsistent, or selfish. We can fail to recognize the growing maturity of the child, and treat the sixteen-year-old like an eight-year-old. Or we may show favouritism to one of our children, perhaps the one who is most like us. A common sin is to discipline the child when we are cranky, and to let things go when we feel at peace with the world. But Eli and David sinned in the opposite direction.
In the dark days of the military madness associated with Nazism and World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the Lutheran theologian who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945) criticized the increasingly popular notion that it was the first duty of parents to be their children’s friends. Bonhoeffer considered, quite rightly, that they must be their children’s parents first, then their friends. Indeed, he commented that ‘Most parents today are too spineless.’
Just as Jesus is Lord first, then Servant (see John 13), so parents must be parents first to their children, then friends. This is a crucial point — the church’s first duty is not to proclaim Jesus is Servant to the world. That has some truth, of course, but by itself is a distortion. Our first duty is to proclaim Jesus is Lord. When that is understood, then we can add the truth that ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). Similarly, parents today must be parents first, with God-given authority.
It is terrible to see child abuse, but it is also terrible to see parent abuse. How many households do you know where the child is dictating terms to his or her parents? How many times do you see a child misbehaving badly, and the parent has no idea how to react? Indeed, the parent is almost overcome by panic. This is by no means uncommon, even in Christian homes.
There is a crisis of authority in many places today — in government, in the schools, in our homes, and in the church herself. At the Christian school run by our church, I have interviewed parents who intended to place their child in the school, but who left the final decision with the child himself. So a six or seven-year-old youngster is left to decide how he or she should be educated! Earlier generations would have shaken their heads in disbelief at such a turn of events.
What, then, should Eli have done? Corporal discipline plays its part in the proper raising of children (for example, Proverbs 22:15), but it was hardly appropriate in Eli’s case. He was ninety-eight years old, and Hophni and Phinehas must surely have been in their forties, fifties, or even sixties (1 Samuel 4:15). Eli needed to put them out of the priesthood. What this says to us is that discipline is not just a matter of words. Nagging is not enough. Sometimes tough stands have to be taken, and backed up with action. That action must be appropriate. If the child is younger, corporal discipline may be necessary. If the child is older, other measures may be necessary. It is not an easy thing at all — we can sin by being too hard, but we can also sin by being too soft.