What accounts for the relational disasters, financial corruption, and moral failures that continue to erupt in our local churches? There are undoubtedly numerous explanations that could be cited, but I want to focus on one that most people typically ignore: bad and unbiblical ecclesiology. I have in mind those churches in which the senior pastor is given excessive and often unbridled authority and remains largely unaccountable for his decisions. This is often the result of an appeal to the Old Testament as a model for local church government.
Joshua 3:7 comes immediately to mind. There God said to Joshua: “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” Some refer to this as the “Moses Model” of local church government. The almost unilateral authority that God invested in Moses, and in his successor, Joshua, is embraced and applied to local church leadership today.
We need to be extraordinarily careful about the way we apply Old Testament passages such as this to us today. Many make the mistake of trying to take an OT model for leadership and applying it to the NT church. They assume that the kind of authority and prominence given to men such as Moses and Joshua should also be extended to pastors today. But nowhere in the NT is any single individual elevated in the way Joshua was. The church is not a geo-political nation as was Israel.
Leadership in the church is always and only granted to a plurality of men called Elders. I don’t find any indication that a local church was to be governed by a single elder or pastor. The consistent NT witness is that each church was under the oversight of a plurality of elders/bishops, as the following texts confirm: see Acts 11:29-30; 14:23; 15:1-6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:17-18; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5. So let’s be careful how we use the OT.
One of the great tragedies in our day is the repeated occurrence of popular and powerful Christian leaders falling into sexual sin or financial scandal or, through the exercise of excessive and unchallenged authority, being the cause of church splits and relational ruptures. All too often this comes as a result of investing in one person a governing authority that the Bible nowhere endorses. Such “leaders” are accountable to no one, or at most to an inner circle of “yes” men who serve only to insulate and guard the leader from outside influence or criticism.
Such “leaders” are thought to possess the Holy Spirit in a heightened degree. They are especially, uniquely, and extraordinarily “anointed” to a degree beyond that which is available to the ordinary Christian and in such a way as to put them beyond evaluation or critique. The result is that what they say or do is regarded as inviolable. They speak with the authority of God himself and cannot be questioned. Or if you do challenge them, you quickly find yourself out of a job or demoted or relegated to the margins of church life. Such “leaders” begin to think of themselves as exempt from routine biblical standards of conduct when it comes to sexuality or money.
Let me say this as clearly and forcefully as I can. If you ever find yourself in a church or ministry or situation in which the leader or pastor is beyond criticism and answers to no one but himself, run away! If you find yourself in a church where the senior or lead pastor cannot be disciplined or removed from his role in the church, run away! If you find yourself in a situation where the leader has arbitrary and ultimate authority over every decision, run away!
I’m not saying that pastors who are accountable to a Board of Elders cannot sin and fall. Sadly, they do. But it is decidedly more difficult for them than it is for those who ground their authority in an unbiblical appeal to the example of OT figures such as Moses or Joshua.
I’m not saying we can’t learn from the lives and ministries of Moses and Joshua and David in the OT. Of course we can. But that doesn’t mean that the structures of spiritual authority operative in the Old Covenant are to be applied to the life of the church in the New Covenant.