Eli was a priest when the judges governed Israel, and as such he was supposed to be an example to the people as their worship leader. Yet his homelife made it impossible for him to be a model for those under his care. Scripture minces no words in describing his sons as “worthless,” men who “did not know the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:12). We would not ordinarily blame Eli for his sons’ adult transgressions, especially since Eli did rebuke them for their sins (vv. 22–26). Apparently, however, Eli’s admonitions were half-hearted because God charged the priest with exalting his sons above the Almighty (vv. 27–29), something that Eli likely did from their youth. Eli’s disordered, undisciplined, sinful family revealed that his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord. Being unfit for leadership, Eli was finally removed from his position (vv. 30–36; 4:12–18).
Ancient peoples believed that private behavior was indicative of effective leadership and, consequently, that a family’s conduct determined whether the father would be a skilled leader. Well-behaved kids revealed consistent, caring discipline at home, which proved that a man could govern a group larger than his family. Many people today reject this premise, but Scripture sides with the ancients on this matter, telling the church to choose for elders only those men who manage their homes in dignity, with submissive children (1 Tim. 3:4).
The submission that qualifies a man to be an elder is not instilled through a harshness or legalism that requires perfection or that the children be something other than what they are, both of which will provoke the child to anger. Instead, it results when a father raises his kids in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), which, one commentator says, manifests itself in a firmness that makes it advisable for children to obey, a wisdom that makes it natural for them to obey, and a love that makes it a pleasure for them to obey.
Ruling the church well requires the same sort of nurture, courage, and thoughtfulness that make discipline effective. This is a common-sense observation that the Lord Himself approves in today’s passage. If a man cannot lead his own family, how can we expect him to lead the family of God (1 Tim. 3:5)?
John Calvin comments that Paul recommends for eldership a man “who has learned to govern a family by wholesome discipline.” If you are a parent, are you consciously trying to lead your child in the faith in a way that will help engender in him love for the church? Even if you have no children you can help discipline the young people in your church by modeling a life of thoughtful service to God in the freedom brought to us by Christ Jesus.