If I didn’t know the whole story, I would side with the people of Israel (Korah’s group) as they stood up against Moses and Aaron:
“You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”Numbers 16:3
This statement by “Korah and all his company” in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt is a beautiful summary of toxic leadership. Toxic leaders assume a place of prominence (exalt themselves) and refuse to acknowledge the value of their subordinates (all in the congregation are holy).
However, Korah’s analysis of Moses’ leadership was wanting.
Moses was specifically chosen by God to lead His people out of Egypt and into the promised land. God had prepared a man who was deeply driven by justice to be the shepherd of Israel. Moses had stood up against multiple oppressors as a young man, putting even his life at risk (see Exodus 2).
He looked out for the vulnerable. Moses protected those who were forgotten in his society – slaves and women.
God MADE Moses into the leader of Israel.
A False Charge
So, what brought on the complaints and accusations of Korah and his mob?
The Lord had graciously led the people of Israel (by Moses’ hand) to the border of the promised land. It was a land “flowing with milk and honey.” A good land that He was freely giving them.
And they had rebelled against the Lord.
They had refused to go into the land out of fear. The Lord had led them by many miraculous signs – many of which established the fact that Moses was God’s chosen leader – and yet they still had no faith that God would safely bring them into the land.
So, the Lord refuses to lead them into the land after they made an act of contrition for their disobedience and failure of faith.
That brings us to “Korah’s rebellion” in Numbers 16.
His words are in fact hollow and foolish. And we know this not only because over and over the Lord has made clear that His chosen leader is Moses, but because Moses has a heart of love and protection for his vulnerable followers.
When the people had rebelled against the Lord at the entryway to the promised land, He said to Moses,
“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”Numbers 14:11-12 (ESV)
God had continually cared for them and they refused Him. Their judgment was sure. So, God promised Moses that He would create a new nation who would follow Moses and He would destroy the current Israel for their failure to follow him.
What does Moses do? Did he say, “Sounds great to me. I am sick of their bellyaching, myself. Give me a people who will bow and submit to me!” No.
But Moses said to the LORD, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O LORD, are in the midst of this people. For you, O LORD, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”Numbers 14:13-19 (ESV)
Moses stands between the Lord and His people.
He seeks their pardon. He desires to assuage the Lord’s anger at his rebellious people. And Moses seeks the glory of God among the nations.
This is true leadership.
Moses should have the respect and honor of his subordinates because he continually proves that he is faithful to them and to their God. He is a shepherd who does not turn and run from danger, but seeks to protect and guide (John 10).
But Moses is a man and he fails at times. In fact, the Lord holds him accountable for his own lack of faith and refuses him entry to the promised land later (Deuteronomy 34:4). Moses then humbles himself.
Moses is a leader to emulate.
Then There Are Abusive Leaders
When a leader is abusive of his authority, what then?
Is a church leader, by nature of the office he holds, the “Lord’s anointed” as David calls King Saul in 2 Samuel 1:14? Should he be obeyed no matter what?
2 Samuel 1 seems a strange Scripture to turn into a principle and apply to church leaders today. And yet, I hear this over and over as a criticism of those who have stood against a pastor or Christian leader. By calling out a church leader due to his misuse of spiritual leadership, these church members are shamed for “touching the Lord’s anointed.”
When a leader has “hands laid upon him” – “ordained” – there is an anointing that has taken place. As the “Book of Church Order” in one denomination states,
“Ordination is the authoritative admission of one duly called to an office in the Church of God, accompanied with prayer and the laying on of hands, to which it is proper to add the giving of the right hand of fellowship.”Book of Church Order – Presbyterian Church in America
Though he has been set apart for work as a pastor in the church, by those same standards he
“should possess a competency of human learning and be blameless in life, sound in the faith and apt to teach. He should exhibit a sobriety and holiness of life becoming the Gospel. He should rule his own house well and should have a good report of them that are outside the Church.”BCO
There are high standards for pastors. And we are called to submit to them by the writer of Hebrews:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
The New Testament Leader
Though these instructions provide a high view of church leaders, there is no sense in the New Testament church that leaders cannot be challenged or “touched” as if they are somehow untouchable in their position of authority in the church.
Church leaders’ lives are to be such that they can be emulated by congregant members, not unchallenged.
Paul, speaking of his Apostleship, says to the Corinthian church:
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.”1 Corinthians 4:1-2 (ESV)
Verse one points to the high position Apostles have (not speaking of pastors) as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” But verse two notes the responsibility even the greater (Apostles) have for faithfulness. Without that faithful living, even the Apostles would stand accountable. It is all the more so for pastors in Christ’s church who are not called “stewards of the mysteries of God” anywhere in the New Testament.
This principle of authority (do not touch) comes more from Old Testament Israel. In that context, leaders often provided spiritual and political leadership (Moses, Joshua, the Judges, David and Saul). But, that is not the case in the New Testament church. The “theocracy” of the old has passed away (and in fact, there is a clear shift in how the church is to now engage the world around them).
Church leaders do not have the same authority over the lives of their sheep as Moses did. He was given the law “face to face” by the Lord. Other leaders were given the Word directly to pass on to God’s people, who in turn were to believe and follow the leader appointed by the Lord.
However, a New Testament church leader’s spiritual authority only goes so far because all of God’s people are “priests” (Revelation 1:5). And it should be obvious that they have no political authority being that there is no longer a nation that is a “church” as Israel was (nor is there a desire on God’s part that there be one found in the New Testament).
Whereas, leaders in the Old, both spiritual (priests) and political (kings) were God’s mouthpieces to His people, the New Testament saint (believer) has the Word of God written and available to all and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to illuminate.
Hold Them Accountable
Yes, we submit to our church leaders. Yes, we respect and honor our leaders. Yes, we listen to them.
But, we also hold them accountable to teach rightly and to live rightly.
Please do not use the line, “Do not touch the Lord’s anointed” again in reference to a church pastor. Particularly when his life of abusive leadership has disqualified him from that leadership.
Give your church leader respect and accountability.