Moses – a model for pastoral authority?

Jeramie Rinne on “The Moses Model” of Pastoral Authority:

I call it the “Moses Model.” It’s a view of church governance that grants complete authority to a church’s pastor. A Christian brother explained it to me this way: “The pastor is supposed to be like Moses. He goes into the tent to hear from God. He then comes out and proclaims what God told him. The elders say ‘Amen’ and the people follow.”

Though they might not appeal to Moses directly, many pastors follow a similar model of pastoral authority. They sometimes point out the efficiencies of the pastor as singular, decision-making executive, or the horror stories of churches where radical congregationalism and a rebellious spirit against any leadership has produced numerous divisions and years of unfruitfulness.

Despite such pragmatic considerations and tragic anecdotes, the Moses model faces several major biblical obstacles. Most glaringly, the New Testament (NT) simply does not portray Moses and his relationship to Israel as the paradigm for pastors and church organization. Moses’ name occurs over 80 times in the NT, primarily in reference to his role in giving the Law, though in other contexts as well (like his appearance at the transfiguration). In none of these texts is he put forward as the pattern of church government or pastoral authority.

Although the NT doesn’t compare pastors to Moses, it does compare Jesus to Moses. Jesus repeatedly claimed that Moses wrote about him (for example, Luke 24:27,44; John 5:46; see also Acts 28:23). Furthermore, the NT writers portrayed Jesus as superior to Moses (for example John 1:45; 6:32; Acts 13:39; 2 Corinthians 3:7f; Hebrews 3:2-5; 8:5f; 9:19f). Moses’ writings and role as mediator of the Old Covenant foreshadowed the coming of Jesus as the mediator of a better covenant.

Jesus is the one who comes forth from God’s presence to speak authoritatively to the church. A pastor’s job is not to stand in the place Jesus, but to faithfully proclaim the message and gospel of Jesus. Interestingly, when Paul warned Timothy about rebellious false teachers, he compared them to the rebellious Israelites opposing Moses. But in the comparison, Moses doesn’t represent the pastors; Moses represents the truth of the gospel itself: “Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth” (2 Timothy 3:8). Pastors only bear biblical authority insofar as they stick to the truth of the gospel and urge the church to follow God’s Word.

But there are other problems for the Moses Model. The terms “pastor/shepherd,” “elder” and “bishop” are used interchangeably in the NT to refer to the same office (for example Acts 20:17,28 and 1 Peter 5:1-4; compare 1 Timothy 3:1 and Titus 1:5). The idea of a pastor speaking and the elders saying “Amen” doesn’t work because the pastor is an elder and the elders are pastors.

Furthermore, the texts above depict a plurality of pastors/elders in a local church. The pastor can’t be Moses, because there shouldn’t be one leader ruling the others. God intends church leadership to be shared and communal in nature.

Finally, the Moses Model cannot account for the numerous texts that speak of the congregation’s authority and the accountability of leaders to them (for example Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Timothy 5:19-22). Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom both to the church’s leader, Peter, as well as to the whole congregation (compare Matthew 16:17-20 with 18:18). Ultimately the whole church stands accountable before God for its actions, as is clear from Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation.

Can congregationalism be abused? Of course it can. But so can pastoral authority! Experiences of sinful abuses on either side should not keep us from seeking God’s good plan for church order, which appears to be a kind of pastor/elder-led congregationalism, marked by mutual accountability. But even before working out the details of this sort of polity, the church must begin with all its members and leaders submitting themselves and saying “Amen” to the only Moses of the church: the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

2 thoughts on “Moses – a model for pastoral authority?

  1. Excellent post! Really helpful. Thank you.
    I hadn’t before made the connection of people using Moses as a model for church leadership (which they often do) and the subtle dangers in doing so. Rinne is absolutely right though.
    One of the commonest traps I have seen leaders and churches fall into, ever so subtly, is that one about the leader going into the tent to hear from God and then coming out and telling the people. Particularly if a pastor is a gifted and able prophet and teacher, it can be really tempting for the people to get used to hearing from the pastor rather than doing the hard work of hearing from God for themselves (not advocating shoddy, uninspired preaching as a solution to this, of course! Praise God for gifted preachers and teachers!). And when the worship is great and the Holy Spirit abounds, it is so easy not to notice that one is rarely hearing from God personally, but rather getting a spiritual shot in the arm on a Sunday. One of the wisest pastors I’ve ever had, often, when people came to him for counsel, would listen, pray with them and then send them away to hear from God themselves rather than dispensing advice.
    There are of course challenges for the leader too, in leaving behind the Moses type model. Giving up control can be scary. It takes much more skill as a leader to foster a culture of participation and empowerment and then deal wisely with the results of that, than simply to tell people what to think and how to behave. It takes courage and humility to give power away without abdicating one’s responsibility as a leader and to mentor and lead those with gifts greater than one’s own or whose vision and enthusiasm comes with a challenging personality. The result of being in such an environment, though, is that people grow and blossom, creativity flourishes and spiritual maturity becomes the norm rather than the exception. What joy!

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