In his book, Principle-Centred Leadership, Stephen Covey wrote about the difference between the power and influence that come from coercion and structures, and what can come from character.

It appears that in his time on earth Jesus waived his structural power,1 and relied largely on the power and influence that came from his character. People trusted him. We do see him using his positional power as well. He was a man, a religious teacher, and had an increasingly large following. He worked for change, like when he asserted for Mary’s right to sit at his feet as a disciple.2 But his positional power was limited, and he spurned coercive methods that might have gained him more.

Covey’s types of power and influence

Covey wrote about three types of power:3

Coercive power comes from fear of consequences. We see that in Hophni and Phinehas’s threats of violence4 against those who came to worship at the Tent of Meeting.

Utility power comes from trading. Perhaps those who followed Hophni and Phinehas gained some benefit. It appears at least Eli did: he grew fat on the proceeds of their corruption.5 But utility power also includes “soft” benefits such as promotions, inclusion in social networks, and praise.

Principle-centred power comes from trust. A principle-centred person can gain influence by virtue of their consistent good character. There are a string of Bible characters who seemed to gain influence in this way, including, but not at all limited to: Hannah, Abigail, Elijah, Stephen, Nathan, Jonathan, Daniel, Joseph (the one with the coat), Ruth, and, of course, Jesus,

“Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage”6

In healthy systems, power and influence come from character and competence

Organisations are more functional when authority structures line up with character and competence, but life is rarely that simple. In a healthy system, however, good and competent people can thrive and contribute. A healthy leader gets excited when someone has more expertise and strong ethics!

Conversely, a toxic leader might be threatened by a good, competent person. Especially if they sensed influence started to shift away from themselves. I wonder how Samuel would have fared if God had not removed Eli and his sons? Before their death, we are told:

“The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.”7

No doubt Samuel was a growing threat to Hophni and Phinehas, and that may have given Eli some anxiety.

Hophni and Phinehas had a lot to lose

There is no sign of good leadership from these men. Even when the elders of Israel asked for the Ark to be brought into battle, Hophni and Phinehas went along with the attempt to weaponise8 the God we have already been told they did not know.9

These are the men who led Israel’s religious system. They held incredible coercive power. They had position, influence, benefits to bestow on those they chose, and a platform to speak from. This is who the women who served at the Tent of Meeting worked for. So it is unsurprising these women were vulnerable, and harmed.

What about the victims?

I feel for these women. We have just half a sentence about them. We do not know their stories, and I hope they had people around them who made space for them. One of the powerful things in this short narrative is the very clear message that God saw. He said,

“I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.”10

He was furious, almost as much with Eli for not putting a stop to it as he was with Hophni and Phinehas for being the primary perpetrators of evil.

It is so easy when reading the Bible, (and in daily life!), to skip over the stories of people who are often quiet because of their trauma. Perhaps(?) in this case their privacy is respected while justice is served. However, the message is clear that Eli should have noticed them, and acted.

People like Hannah, and Samuel, stand out against this backdrop. Samuel goes on to speak truth to power many times, at great risk. Because he did so, he feared death at Saul’s hands – a fear God appears to have considered well-founded.11

Part of our mission at The Abigail Project is to strengthen the hands of people like Samuel and Hannah, and make life harder for those like Hophni and Phinehas. Can you help in some way? Do you notice those around you who are struggling? Are there battles to take on? It really helps when people of goodwill stand alongside each other.

Steve Wade

It is so easy when reading the Bible, (and in daily life!), to skip over the stories of people who are often quiet because of their trauma. Share on X



  1. Philippians 2:6-8
  2. Again, Marg Mowczko’s work on this is very helpful.
  3. Principle-Centred Leadership ch 9
  4. 1 Samuel 2:16
  5. 1 Samuel 2:29; 4:18
  6. Philippians 2:6
  7. 1 Samuel 3:19-21
  8. 1 Samuel 4:3-4
  9. 1 Samuel 2:12
  10. 1 Samuel 3:11
  11. 1 Samuel 16:2


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