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?