A Guide to Mistreating Worshipers

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“….they treated the Lord’s offering with contempt” (I Samuel 2:17).

The first rule of worship leadership should probably be stated as Try Not To Get In Their Way.

When  people come to worship, if you cannot help them, at the very least try not to interfere with what they are doing.

The sons of Eli the High Priest were nothing but trouble. Hophni and Phinehas–who doesn’t love those names!– “were wicked men; they had no regard for the Lord or for the priests’ share of the sacrifices from the people” (I Samuel 2:12-13).

God literally calls them SOBs.  “Sons of Belial” is the Hebrew expression translated as “wicked men” or “corrupt.”

Scripture has not a single positive statement about these miscreants.

These men stand as warnings to every kingdom worker to tread softly and serve honorably.  We are stewards and not owners; servants and not lords.  We should encourage worship and not place obstacles and burdens upon the worshipers.

We are to help people worship and not divert it into our own purposes.

The people can worship God without you, O thou shepherd of the Lord’s flock.

If we cannot help them do it better, we should back off and remove ourselves from the picture.

Every pastor, every minister of any kind, every support staff, every church custodian, and every denominational worker should be familiar with these first few chapters of First Samuel and heed their caution about worship leaders.

1) They treated those who came to worship with contempt.

“(Hophni and Phinehas) were sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (I Samuel 2:22).  See Exodus 38:8 for a reference to this ministry of the women.

And you thought lustful ministers was a recent phenomenon.

Through the centuries, stories of ministers preying upon helpless children, vulnerable counselees, and trusting helpers have become commonplace, to our everlasting shame.

2) They treated the people’s offerings as their own.

“When any man offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant (i.e., those who worked for Hophni and Phinehas) would come with a three-pronged meat fork while the meat was boiling and plunge it into the container or kettle or caldron or cooking pot. The priest would claim for himself whatever the meat fork brought up. This is the way they treated all the Israelites who came there to Shiloh” (I Samuel 2:13-14).

Deuteronomy 18:3-5 spells out which portions of the offerings belonged to the priests.  Hophni and Phinehas sent servants to take more than what was allotted, and to do so early in the process.  While Leviticus 7:31 commanded that the fat be burned on the altar, they wanted their meat raw.  Those who grill steaks understand that a little fat flavors the meat..

God was not interested in barbecuing. He was looking for obedience.

The Lord did not take kindly to their treating His commands so lightly. Their offense was “very severe” (2:17)

3) They treated the Ark of the Covenant as a magic totem.

In I Samuel 4, Hophni and Phinehas carried the ark of the covenant into battle against the Philistines.  They were counting on the enemies to panic once they saw the Israelites had “their god” leading the way.  But it didn’t work out as they had intended.

God had said that He dwelt above the Ark, in between the cherubim.  So, for the carnal-minded–and Hophni and Phinehas were nothing if not carnal–that was good enough for them. To carry the box into battle obligated God to come along and guaranteed a victory over His enemies.

People are always saying God is obligated to do this or that because “we have His word on it.”  Maybe we do, but we also have Psalm 115:3. “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”

God has plans He has not told us about, and is as unpredictable as the wind (see our Lord’s statement on that in John 3:8).

Instead of intimidating them, the presence of the Ark actually motivated the Philistines to greater effort.  “Boys, we may be in trouble.  They have their god with them today. If you ever fought before, you’d better fight now.”

“So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated…. The slaughter was severe–30,000 of the Israelite foot soldiers fell. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died” (I Samuel 4:10-11).

Too late, the priests learned the Lord’s presence was no magic guarantee against defeat, that possessing the ark did not automatically mean He was present, and that His blessings could not be manipulated as they wished. John MacArthur says, “…they confused the symbol of the His presence with His actual presence.  In this way, their understanding of God resembled that of the Philistines.”

Simply stated, God wanted the Israelites defeated.

Nice little benign history lesson, right? Nothing there for our sophisticated generation of church leaders, right?

Bad wrong. There is a world of instruction here.

–1) We must honor those who come to worship.

We who lead churches must not abuse them, manipulate them, or see them as serving our purposes.  They are not “the attendance.” They are not “my crowd” or “our bunch.”

These are the people of the Lord. They are “His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

Leaders who abuse and misuse God’s children will give account to Him personally some day, and it will not be a pretty thing. Furthermore, those of us who believe that “since I am saved by the blood and ‘there is no condemnation,’ I will not have to account for what I have done before the Lord” are in for a rude awakening.

Remember you heard it here.

–2) We must honor the offerings people bring to the Lord. 

Every gift is His and not ours.

Among the disciples, it was Judas who loved the offerings more than he should (John 12:6) and who treated the contributions of others as his own.

There must always be financial accountability for those who would lead the Lord’s flock. Pastors and staffers who live lavishly upon the offerings of the Lord’s people should be held accountable and expected to live humbly and faithfully. Churches should insist that just because one pastors a congregation of wealthy contributors does not entitle that minister to a large income and a mansion in which to dwell.

A great segment of ministers has not gotten that memo.

Every church needs a system of checks and balances, and every congregation on the planet should have an opportunity for any member of the flock to stand in a meeting and ask how a thing was decided, who made the decision to buy this or build that.  The more distance a church puts between its ministers and the flock, the more abuse it is subjecting itself to.

“Moreover, it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (I Corinthians 4:2).  “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Luke 16:11).

–3) In all things, we must honor our Lord Jesus Christ.

We must not leave the impression that God is merely a symbol or a good luck charm or that His words are a magic formula. Numerous times through the centuries, the Lord’s people discovered the hard way that “God’s name on us” did not guarantee them the right to sin, to rebel against Him, to flout His laws or go their own way.  God allowed the Assyrians to completely annihilate Israel (what we call the “northern kingdom” in 722 B.C. The scattered population would never return and the nation was never rebuilt.  God allowed the Babylonians to defeat Judah and destroy Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

In each case, God’s priests were lulling His people into a false sense of security, telling them “God is with us, so we’re untouchable.”

If anything, the Lord’s people are held to a much higher standard than the world.  Behavior that would be overlooked in the world is forbidden to the Lord’s saints.

All we who work in churches and denominations should see ours as a holy calling with a great responsibility and a stiff accountability.

Let us honor the Lord’s people.

Let us respect their worship.

Let us fear God.

The writer of Ecclesiastes shared our concern….

“Walk prudently when you go to the house of God, and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know they do evil.  Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in Heaven and you on earth.  Therefore, let your words be few….” (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2).

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