Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

If you’ve ever served in leadership in a Calvary Chapel or Vineyard Christian Fellowship, chances are you’re familiar with the term “Moses Model” or at least the idea behind it. This teaching isn’t new; we see it much earlier in church history. It’s essentially a mono-episcopal model, with one bishop/pastor overseeing each church. This particular version of the model was most clearly articulated by Chuck Smith, longtime senior pastor of the original Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, CA.

“Pastor Chuck,” as he’s affectionately known throughout the Calvary Chapel movement, first showed that the leadership structure for the people of Israel could be charted as a pyramid, with the people on the bottom, the priests and judges above them, Moses at the top, with God over all. Then he taught that we should follow this pattern in the church and pictured it with the people on the bottom, the elders/deacons/assistant pastors above them, the pastor on the top by himself, and Jesus over the pastor. (You can find this teaching and the diagram below presented in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel by Chuck Smith.)

There are many serious problems with this approach. To begin with, Moses led the entire people of God (probably more than two million people), not just a local gathering of Israelites. If we consistently apply this model to the church, it would lead us to something closer to a Pope than a local pastor. Thankfully, we know that Moses’ role was a unique one, and that he didn’t foreshadow the New Testament local pastor, but the New Testament Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 1:17; Acts 3:22-23; Hebrews 3:1-6). Moses was the mediator who went between God and the people. Today, the pastor doesn’t fill that priestly role—Jesus does (1 Timothy 2:5).

While many insist that the pyramid is actually turned upside down, with the pastor serving the entire body, it still leaves a diagram showing not “one mediator between God and man,” but two—Jesus and the pastor. This is revealed to be more than just a diagram fluke by a pattern of unhealthy authoritarianism. I should hasten to say that many Calvary Chapels and Vineyards are pastored by loving, humble men who seek to do the best for the flock. But the leadership model itself opens the door for serious abuses of authority.

Most of the people in the churches don’t see any of this. But when you become a leader, you’re taught not to question the leadership or views of the senior pastor (publicly or privately). To challenge him is seen as a sin just as Aaron and Miriam sinned by challenging Moses. To even ask questions is often seen as being divisive, and if those questions involve the senior pastor, you’ll be told to “touch not God’s anointed” (misusing Psalm 105:15, and also 1 Samuel 24:6 and 26:9-11). You’re taught that if you can’t agree or follow the senior pastor, then you should quietly leave the church and go someplace else.

Chuck Smith illustrates this extreme view of authority in a story he tells in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel. The church in Costa Mesa had started a local Korean fellowship, which was pastored by a medical doctor. After some time, the new fellowship appointed a board of elders. The Korean congregation had grown quite large, and the elders began urging the pastor to give up his medical practice and serve the church in full-time pastoral ministry. The pastor disagreed, and went to Chuck Smith for advice on how to handle these conflicting viewpoints as to how the church should proceed. Pastor Chuck’s solution? Fire the elders! Apparently, when there’s a difference of opinion between the pastor and the elders, the way to handle this is to get rid of the elders! It’s shocking to me that Smith has not only written a public account of this story, but he actually uses it to teach leadership principles to Calvary pastors.

(It’s unfortunate that this kind of authoritarianism has led to abuses of power in many of these churches. In fact, there are people who meet online as a kind of support group who tell how they’ve experienced abuses of authority by Calvary pastors.)

In The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel, Smith gives us a little more insight into how he sees the role of the elders in church ministry. Apparently, they are there to shield the pastor from flak due to unpopular decisions. Even though the pastor concurs with the direction taken (actually being the one who approves every decision), he need not face the criticism of those in the church who may disagree. When people complain, the pastor can point to the elders and say, “The board made their decision.” The elders then become the lightning rod for any criticism, and the pastor preserves the favorable impression the people have of him personally. It’s difficult to find the pastoral ministry of New Testament elders in any of this.

Another concern with this model of church leadership is that it leaves the pastor without any real accountability. He answers to no one but God. This is a dangerous place to be. It’s nice to be put on a pedestal, but it’s painful to slip off! Tragically, there have been many instances of moral failure that have devastated families, whole churches, and the pastors themselves. It’s not a loving thing to put a pastor in such a vulnerable position without having a secure system of accountability to fellow pastors who love him and who will tell him the truth, even if it hurts.

There are many wonderful, admirable qualities of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements, and we can learn a lot from them. Unfortunately, their leadership structure has too often been their Achilles’ heal. Seeking to avoid being a ‘hireling’ (John 10:12-13), these men make themselves the Shepherd of the church. We see this honor as reserved for Christ alone. He is our Chief Shepherd, or Senior Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). He graciously calls the elders of the church to assist him in shepherding our brother and sister believers, and we want to faithfully fulfill this pastoral ministry. But we see no place in Scripture where anyone other than Jesus follows the model of Moses and serves as the pastor of the church.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”? [see above]

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

27 thoughts on “Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

  1. Thank you Curt!

    There is a lot I could say on this topic since being involved with CCs since 1992 and leaving in Dec 2009. Moses also said that he wish all would prophecy. So what model do you cherry pick from scripture.

    Help me out with this idea of isolating scripture to justify your favorite practice.

    The essential Doctrines are focused on the person and work of Christ JESUS of Nazareth alone as defined in the NT. I might add our view of the the gathering and it’s focus matter also ie….ecclessiology and koinonia……CHRIST must be the HEAD. When this seed is planted love grows because the Nature of JESUS is inside us. The HOLY SPIRIT always points to JESUS.

    Genuine ORGANIC not corporate organization.

  2. Thanks, guys! I hope this didn’t come across as too negative. There are some wonderful things about Calvary Chapel. But their leadership structure is just not healthy (or biblical).

  3. Excellent series, Curt. You’ve confirmed my own thinking in some respects and challenged it in others. As always, I appreciate what you have to say. Blessings!

  4. Thanks, Cale! It’s good to hear from you. I’ve had to be focused on other things lately, but I’m hoping to get another post up here later today.

  5. My family was a victim of the Moses Model leadership that left the pastor unaccountable. All agreed that a leader had sinned, repeatedly. All agreed their was no sin on our part. Still the pastor chose to not deal with the sin in the leadership; thereby leaving us in a predicament. No reconciliation could be reached, since the pastor refused to meet with us when we asked for reconciliation. Though there is an elder board, they are elders in name only and have no power to question or bring correction to the pastor or the leader in habitual sin, so we had no recourse.

    We were unable to continue in our places of ministry, but told we were in sin for then going to another church where we could have right relationships and be involved. The pastor actually said there was no reason to leave the church unless we were to move to another city, or go called into an approved ministry elsewhere. We were instructed to never speak of this again to anyone. Since that time, dozens have repeated their stories to us of how they came to leave the Calvary Chapel, adding that they, too, were instructed they would be in sin if they ever repeated what happened to them.

    Though our CC attending neighbors never knew what happened to us, they were encouraged to shun us in subtle, yet affective, ways. This is in a neighborhood in which we have great relationships with our neighbors (Christians and non-Christians alike.) The others have noted what the CC people have done and they have expressed their distaste for such treatment by people who are in the ministry of CC.

  6. I’m sorry to hear how you’ve been hurt. Unfortunately, your story is not uncommon. It’s reported that someone once said of the early believers, “How those Christians love each other.” Now—far too often—we have unbelievers observing, “I can’t believe Christians actually treat each other that way.” It’s tragic.

    I pray that you’ve found a healthy church family where you can receive healing and encouragement.

  7. Since this is an article that seems to care little for facts (perhaps motivated by jealousy and envy) I will also engage in some irrefutable speculation of my own. Unilke the author of this post I do not want or expect you to take me seriously but I detect that the author has a history of abusing authority. For those finely tuned to the nuances of a well developed but never apparent logical system, I do not need to prove that if the author agrees with my carefully stated but factually baseless implications 1. He is guilty of abusing authority and that is all the proof that many in his audience should need to prove that in fact he is guilty. 2. If he confesses guilt under the weight of the considerable power of my no need for proof argument, that also makes my case. 3. If he pretends not to appreciate the power behind my reasoning or if he pretends he does does, he buckles under the weight of what should be obvious to all. Unravel this riddle and you will prove something about yourself-I am sure. So everyone, please be careful!

  8. Hello, George. Are you by any chance the author of The Five Points of Calvinism? If so, I appreciate your book. Either way, thank you for taking the time to read my blog post—although perhaps you should have taken a little more time to read it carefully.

    You’re certainly right that I didn’t document any abuses of authority by Calvary Chapel pastors. And I would agree that no one should simply accept this claim as fact without doing the research for themselves. But we both know that, unfortunately, it won’t take anyone long to find many, many examples of people who claim to have been so abused. One could attempt to brush aside all of these myriad claims as “factually baseless,” but such a dismissal would seem awfully cavalier. Did you happen to read in the comments the firsthand account of just such a person?

    More to the point, the reason I didn’t document any abuses of authority is that this isn’t what the blog post is about. The main subject of this article is the “Moses Model” of pastoral leadership. Did you notice that?

    I find it odd that you characterize my article (I assume you actually mean me, the author) as caring little for facts when I draw directly from the writings of Chuck Smith, even using his own diagram. Is there anything in my handling of the actual subject of my post (i.e. the Moses Model) that is factually baseless or speculative? If so, I would appreciate you pointing it out for me. Your comment really only amounts to a drive-by, ad hominem attack, not a thoughtful response. (I sure hope you’re less fallacious when discussing Calvinism!)

    I know the Calvary Chapel movement has been the subject of attacks motivated by envy. But it is certainly not my intention to attack Calvary Chapel. Quite the contrary, I thank God for what he’s done through your movement, and I wish you continued blessing and success. As I wrote in my post, there is a lot we can learn from you. I only wish you would adopt a more biblical leadership structure that would be healthier for both your people and for your pastors. I know a number of people who wish the same thing, some who were formerly part of Calvary Chapels and some who are still currently involved with your movement.

    If you would care to discuss the actual subject matter of this blog post, I would welcome further interaction.

    Blessings to you,

  9. it still leaves a diagram showing not “one mediator between God and man,” but two—Jesus and the pastor

    and there is the main problem right there, isn’t it? it makes a mortal man the go between again, a protestant ‘high priest’ or Pope teaching from the Magisterium. And leaves the ‘regular people’ dependant on and subservient to the self appointed ‘god-man’ called the Senior Pastor.
    exellent piece. Blessings.

  10. Amen and amen. Additionally, the people of Israel didn’t have the Holy Spirit living within them, as believers now do. The Moses model, to me, is completely ludicrous.

  11. I was an elder in an SBC church for 10 years and attempted to start a mere dialogue concerning greater accountablity with the senior pastor. He immediately stopped speaking with me, refused to return phone calls, etc… After atttempting to speak one on one, then meeting with other men of the church to establish facts (Matthew 18); neither of which bore any fruit as the pastor refused to participate, I decided to take a “sabbattical”. The pastor promptly removed me as elder in violation of the church constitution (covenant). The sheople in the church are afraid to confront him (although many personally came to me to affirm me) and so I had to leave. Since my family and I did not wish to stop attending church we went to a CC church, essentially to heal. I have been doing business with the CC church for many years and I had a good relationship with the pastor and found him to be a godly man. I am still attending and I am implementing an EE ministry there, but do have a problem with the “Moses model” and the lack of accountablity. Pray that God works out this dichotomy.

  12. brother curt,
    i’m sorry GB took the opportunity to misrepresent your article’s intent and mischaracterize it’s substance as mean spirited. i agree that he totally missed the point and failed to honestly(?) and open-mindedly consider the facts and arguments you have made. i also hope he will reconsider his critique from less of a ‘CC-defense’ mode and more of a Moses Model examination mode using the word of God as the measure rather than church tradition (regardless of CC or other churches who use the model). you see, it’s really not all about CC and their adoption of it, but the general application of the MM by the church in general and whether the scripture itself is able to support and justify such a position.
    george, we ceratinly agree on the issues with calvinism in CC and the church in general, but i think you may want to step back and re-read curt’s article. i hope that you do.
    In Christ Together,

  13. Thanks, Mike. The purpose of the post wasn’t even really to challenge Calvary Chapel’s Moses Model, but to deal with challenges to pastoral leadership by a plurality of elders (of which the Moses Model is one). I would love if George Bryson or anyone else from CC wanted to interact about the Moses Model.

  14. You are right Curt. The Moses Model is in the majority of churches in differing variations. It is merely that CC has institutionalized the model. In the SBC church where I served our church constitution called for the “elders to govern the affairs of the church”. But the reality was that the senior pastor made nearly all decisions. I have been involved in Evangelism Explosion for 17 years, but even D.J. Kennedy said that EE would not function properly unless implemented in a healthy church. Churches that have the MM will still function, but not to their full potential. There will always be a spirit of mistrust and fear at some level. When the senior pastor does not have to answer to anyone he does not wish to answer to there is a lack of transparency.

  15. LAR, it is sad to see a church that appears to have a biblical eldership but is actually dominated by one pastor. It’s just not healthy—for the church or the pastor.

  16. Pingback: Calvary Chapel, Chuck Smith, The Moses Model: Let the Little Dogs Bark! | Spiritual Sounding Board

  17. I’ve seen a form of this where the board is supposed to keep the pastor in check but the only one that communicates with the board is the pastor. When this happens, information is filtered through the pastor to the board and you have faux accountability.

    I’ve seen this happen when a pastor decided to erase certain parts of an email to cover something up.

  18. Thanks, Jacob. Yes, I agree this can be a big problem. There are going to be times when one of the elders brings an issue to the rest of the team, and it may make sense for him to be the “point man” in continuing to address that situation. But if one elder/pastor is always the conduit between a church board and the rest of the church, that’s setting them all up (including the pastor) for potential abuse of this system. No one should have that much power with that little accountability.

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  20. Having been elder in Calvary Chapel I can, unfortunately, vouch that some of the potential pitfalls of the Moses Model mentioned in the article do come to pass in practice. Chuck Smith himself warned that the Moses Model could lead to abuse in his book “The Philosophy of Ministry in Calvary Chapel”:

    “There are dangers, though, in a theocratic form of government, primarily because there are some pastors who disobey what the Lord said concerning the one who is chief becoming the servant of all. There are pastors who have abused their powers. They do not make a clear accounting to the board of the financial aspects of the church. They do not seek the advice and counsel of the board before they make important decisions that are relevant to the function of the church. They try to be a one-man show.”

    It’s a long story, of course, but the Calvary I was in went down the road Smith describes above. I loved the church, but requests by the elders to be at least a part of the discussion on major decisions were rejected and a line in the sand was drawn: either support the Moses Model or resign.

  21. I’m sorry for the late response. I’ve been swamped and just haven’t had any time for this blog. It’s sad to hear about your experience. I feel for you. I wish this kind of conflict was rare, but tragically it’s not. I hope you’ve found a healthy place to serve.

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