Then the LORD said to Samuel: “Behold, I will do something in Israel at which both ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows, because his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them. And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” 1 Samuel (1 Kings, LXX) 3:11-14
This passage has a backstory. Young Samuel was placed into the guardianship of the priest Eli, who had two sons of his own, Hophni and Phineas. Like their father, they were priests. Unlike Eli, they were evil, stealing from the offerings brought by the faithful of Israel. (The Scriptures do not give many further details of their sins, but one can surmise that a priest willing to steal from offerings to God would have other moral failings as well.) Eli admonished his sons, but they would not stop (1 Sam 2:22-24). Eli had already been told his evil sons would perish in the same day (1 Sam 2:34). His sons continued in the evil with no interference from their father and, indeed, they died as promised (1 Sam 4:10). However, it is even more significant that Eli himself was to be punished for failing to go beyond a warning, for failing to stop his sons’ actions. Eli knew of the iniquity, “and he did not restrain them.” For this refusal to act, God ended Eli’s familial priesthood, even though Eli was not guilty in the same manner as his sons.
We have a problem in Orthodox North America. Worse than matters of theft and malfeasance, we have sexual sin among some of the clergy – fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and, dare I say it, pedophilia – that is all too often being passed over by hierarchs and church administrators. Some priests, deacons, and bishops who should be serving, caring, and interceding for their flocks are instead “making themselves vile,” and, in some cases, ravaging the flock for their own base appetites. It is clear that these offenders will stand, like Hophni and Phineas, before God. But what of our leaders? What of those who should be restraining these men? Are they taking firm action, or are they taking the path of Eli?
Are the rumors being pursued with vigor? Are the accusers heard, with their testimony validated or refuted, or is their silence purchased with mammon or the threat of public embarrassment? Are the offending clergy removed, or just shuffled around from parish to parish and diocese to diocese in the hopes that the problem will disappear, maybe with a little “counseling”? Are the offending clergy excused with pious wishes that they be rehabilitated, lest we be perceived as judgmental? Which factors have weighed more heavily in our reactions: the legal risks or the the souls of the faithful? Sadly, the answers to these questions are not the ones we should be hoping for.
The result is that these men end up not only repeating the same sins and harming the men, women, boys, and girls entrusted to them yet again, but they destroy themselves by daring to stand before Christ’s Holy Table in such a state. Too many of our Orthodox leaders are allowing this to happen. They are admonishing, but not restraining. Our leaders are taking Eli’s road far too frequently.
It must stop. If we are to have any Christian integrity, if we are to demonstrate Christian leadership, if we are to show the barest shred of concern for the preaching of Christ’s Gospel, the aiding and abetting of such evil through a refusal to restrain it must come to an end.
As a priest myself, I am concerned that these unchecked evils cast a shadow over all of my brethren. How many times are devoted, pious clergy having their integrity silently questioned: Is he gay? Is he faithful to his wife? Can I trust him around my children? The vast majority of my brother clergy are absolutely principled on all these points. The sorry reactions that have been given to the few transgressors, though, make it perfectly reasonable for the faithful to have these questions.
This article is a plea for our leaders in the Church – hierarchs, chancellors, deans, and officials – to restrain evil rather than simply tolerating it. Suspension from clerical duties is insufficient. If a clergyman is not faithful to his wife or his celibacy, he should be deposed. If he has molested a child or seduced an adolescent, he should be deposed. If he has responded to a penitent’s confession with a sexual advance, he should be deposed. The action should be taken quickly and publicly, not with the intent to humiliate or to deny repentance and forgiveness to the guilty, but to proclaim that Christ’s Church stands against evil in all its forms. It must be done with regard solely for the care of the injured parties and the integrity of the Church, not with any regard for the reputation of the guilty or the legal consequences that might result.
It must stop. We can no longer tolerate such manifest evil, nor should we deceive ourselves that warning the erring brothers in these circumstances is sufficient. No, we must restrain the evil. We must exit Eli’s road and do it now.