Avoid Spiritual Abuse By Avoiding The Moses Syndrome

"Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point." CS Lewis



All quotes are taken from the book unless otherwise specified. We highly recommend that you purchase this landmark book.


TWW has written about pastors who speak most derogatorily about their members. Here are some things I have heard members have been called by their pastors: sociopaths, narcissistic zeroes, nobodies, my kids, my boys, etc.. One of the points that we have consistently made is that there are many pastors who seem to spend the bulk of their time running around the world giving lectures, “encouraging” other pastors, and writing books. They buzz in for their Sunday sermon and are off again to bigger and better things.

We received several messages from members/elders of these churches claiming that they hired their pastors to do exactly what they are doing. What? They hired a guy, paid him very well, and he gives relatively little time in service to the church? I have tried to understand this concept. Is he a pastor or a celebrity? In fact, it is my opinion that many conflicts happen in these churches because the pastor does not feel committed to the average church member.


A deficient view of church leadership

The pastor, instead, is the visionary and the role of the people is to follow that vision. If one does not do so, they are no longer of use and are just getting in the way of the “Lord’s work.” This is a top down, CEO model in which the member exists to follow orders. Recently, we received a comment from someone who attends a well-known mega-church. After ten years of playing the game the pastor’s way, he decided to ask a question about seating arrangements in the sanctuary. It seems that the pastors and their families have special seating, roped off from the rest of the congregation. He suggested a more integrated seating pattern. He was told that there was a high likelihood that the church was not the right place for him. In other words, he was discarded.

Our friend had become the problem because there was deficient view of leadership in this church. Instead of the priesthood of the believers, it was the priesthood of the one. The Holy Spirit was not expected to speak out of the mouth of the obedient pew sitter. He was to shut up, give money and do what he was told. No thinking required. If he does not do as he is told, he becomes a sociopath, a nobody,or a narcissistic zero.

The will of God only proceeded through the mouth of the boss man in this situation. Apparently this extends down to the seating plan in the church. This is the body of Christ? This is what we are to expect from out pastors? Is this really a Biblical model?


Ezekiel’s Prophecy

Let’s take a look at the prophecy of Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NIV)

“The word of the LORD came to me:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”

See the result of self-centered leadership.

  • They take the best of everything for themselves.
  • They do not care for the flock.
  • They have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick and injured.
  • They don’t care about those they lose from the fellowship.
  • They rule harshly and brutally.
  • Wild animals eat the scattered sheep. (Think different faiths, atheism)
  • They were scattered throughout the earth and lost.


This seems to fit into our last post in which people are leaving the church in droves and some of the pastors couldn’t care less. Apparently, this does not sit well with God if Ezekiel is to be believed. These pastors are downright bad pastors and should not be serving in that capacity.



The Moses Syndrome


Deuteronomy 34:10-12 (NIV)
“Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt— to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

Some pastors believe that they have received a special call into the ministry, akin to the Levitical priesthood or even Moses. The Bible verse above says quite distinctly that Moses was one of a kind. In fact, it seems a bit egotistical for a pastor to think he is called to be like Moses, a one of a kind leader for a very unique situation.


The Biblical model, in the New Testament, says that all of God’s people are now called into the royal priesthood. (1 Peter 2:9) In fact in Peter, we are told that Moses priesthood was a foreshadowing of what is now the reality of the priesthood of all believers. In the Resurrection, we find that the Temple has been destroyed and there is no need for a priest to enter the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the people. The Curtain has been torn and God now dwells in the lives of each believer in the form of the Holy Spirit.


But just like the people of the Old Testament who demanded a king, many Christians today appear to want a physical leader instead of trusting God for His creation of the priesthood of all believers.  1 Samuel 8:6-9 (NIV)


"But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

This verse is clear. When we reject God as our leader, we can run into trouble. Could it be that we are denying our role as the priesthood. Why? Perhaps it is just too hard.

  • We may be called to do something that is challenging like standing up to abusive leaders.
  • We may have to walk out of our socially elite church, give up our business contacts and instead attend a church in the wrong part of town.
  • We may have to give up our nice group of friends to stand up for injustice when all they want to do is plan the next social.
  • We might be called to participate in a ministry that would demand time and effort and we just want to be comfortable.
  • We would rather be told to bake brownies for the kids program than do something really hard like minster to teens who have been harmed by a pedophile in our midst. That’s too hard and too yucky. As one acquaintance once told me, “I just don’t feel called to get involved in such things." But she has plenty of time to play golf and do the lunch circuit that she has been “called to.”


People appear to “wait passively for a “Moses” to return off the mountain with a plan for them." Thus we have the Moses Syndrome. And the blame falls on both sides. There are the believers who resist their roles as the priests and there are the all too many egotistical pastors are very happy to provide such a service.


The Old Covenant becomes intertwined with the New Covenant and causes a mess.

In the Old Covenant, very few people were called to speak a message from God to the people. But, with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the ballgame changed. In Acts 2:14-17 we hear from Paul explaining the coming of the Holy Spirit and the effect if would have on the people

“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days, God says, 
 I will pour out my Spirit on all people. 
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, 
 your young men will see visions, 
 your old men will dream dreams. 
Even on my servants, both men and women, 
 I will pour out my Spirit in those days, 
and they will prophesy.”


Here are some questions for the reader.

  • Does the above describe your experience with the faith?
  • Or is Sunday simply a time for you to go to church, hear the sermon, fork over some dough and go on home, glad to get the obligation out of the way?
  • Deep down inside, are you kind of glad you pay a professional pastor so you don’t have to get involved?
  • If you are a pastor, do you see your congregation as vibrant speakers of the truth or are they simply a means to your end?
  • Is your church this vibrant or is it just, well, routine and boring and you like it that way?



Could the hierarchical model exhibited by some pastors be breaking the 8th Commandment- You should not steal?

If the gifts of the congregation are not utilized, then they never realize their potential, they do not feel valued and they lack joy. They may have a pastor who is in control over all areas of ministry and the congregation do not feel necessary. Such a pastor may be stealing what was meant to be a shared experience. (p101)


So why has the hierarchical model persisted?

Robert Greenleaf, in his book, Servant Leadership, presents an historical perspective. (p. 103) There have been two types of leadership models in history. First, the historical model of Moses is thousands of years old. This means that one person is at the top and that person is totally responsible. “The buck stops here” as President Truman would say. In order for this position to continue, that person must be afforded a whole lot of power.

It is interesting to note that with such power came many, many failings well demonstrated by the Old Testament kings and leaders. The king was set apart from his people by layers of bureaucracy. And this system of governance would assure that his every wish would be fulfilled. God often sent prophets from the outside to break through the wall. But one only needs to look at the history of Israel to understand that such a leadership model was, in general, a dismal failure. It became man focused, not God focused.

Interestingly, there is a second tradition that comes from the Romans. “There was a principal leader known as “primus inter pares” meaning “first among equals.” There is a leader but the leader is not the chief. His job was to constantly test and prove that leadership among a group of able peers.” (P103. ) This did not persist because it takes time and effort to assign responsibility to a team of equals." In other words, true equality takes time and, in our fast moving society, we like having a streamlined approach. But God’s economy can be very different than man’s notion of efficiency. I had a pastor who once told me that God cares more about the process than the end result, which is an anathema in our American culture.

Greenleaf goes on to list some consequences of having a single chief.

  • It is corrupting to the individual who holds that position. All of his important people are subordinates and there are no colleagues who might be willing to challenge him. Remember, who is in charge of hiring , firing, etc.?
  • An image of omniscience often evolves because there is no one to contest and critique his decisions.
  • There is loneliness at the top. People tend to hide stuff from the big guy.
  • There is too much for one person to do.
  • He holds too much power and does not have to develop and use skills of persuasion. Instead he commands.


Do elders, as they are currently utilized in churches, really make a difference?

I anticipate the following objection. “That is why we have elders.” Now, I want us all to be brutally honest. How many churches actually have independent elders who boldly challenge, in any significant way, the powerful pastor? There are some but how many is the question. Most of you could share stories from personal experience, so could I.

Here is well-known story from the Dallas area. There is a massive Southern Baptist church that is well-known throughout the country. Several decades ago, the lead pastor was carrying on an affair with a church member. The elders/deacons knew about it. Yet, they believed their function was to protect both the pastor and the reputation of the church, neither of which is Biblical. This went on for years until it could be kept secret no longer. Eventually, the house was cleaned, the board replaced and the pastor resigned and died a short time later of cancer. What would have happened if he had been confronted like King David? Might a watching world have been taught an important lesson on repentence?

Once again let me remind you of a former pastor who told me that the elders exist to carry out HIS vision and have only disagreed with him TWICE in 28 years. Imagine the issues inherent in that system!



The “obey your leaders” objection

I expected that some would use this verse to negate the entire post. However, once again, the author has a profound footnote. (I have never seen so much meat in footnotes in my life!) Hebrews 13:17  says to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” What she has to say is so important that I am going to quote her exactly.


“A few verses before this comment seem to portray the kind of leader that was ideal to obey:” Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you“” (Hebrews 13:7). Obeying one’s leaders, then and now, involves DISCERNING the leader’s character and behavior in order to imitate them. Obeying leaders with integrity would, therefore, not be burdensome but would be biblically encouraged, since they would be fully accountable.” Does your church have real people holding to real accountability or is it just a few sycophants who polish the shoes of the leaders?


Questions to ask about the people at your church

We are taking a break from this series for a few days but will be exploring issues of spiritual abuse. Next Thursday we will look at what the author has to say about the New Testament model of leadership. However, I want to leave you with a few questions to ask about your own church. These come from the author, Barbara Orlowski. (P106)

  • Are people growing as persons?
  • Are they becoming healthier, wiser, freer and more autonomous?
  • Are they more likely to become servants themselves?
  • Are the servants becoming leaders?


Lydia's Corner: Numbers 14:1-15:16 Mark 14:53-72 Psalm 53:1-6 Proverbs 11:4



Avoid Spiritual Abuse By Avoiding The Moses Syndrome — 3 Comments

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    like a child,

    I had not seen this website before, and I read through several letters. I understand why some Christians are leaving the institutional church.

    Thanks for sharing the link.

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    Excellent post! So much meat to consider. I would recommend a very close reading of the Greek in Hebrews 13:17. The translations we read today are from those laboring under a “divine” king in a state religion. In fact, many of the Greek words in this verse are translated totally different in other passages of the same translation!

    An excellent analysis of the Greek in this passage is found here on this blog post: Elders: Servants or Leaders


    Test everything