We’re in a ten-part series about scriptural distortions used by cult leaders or those who spiritually abuse others.
One of the greatest abuses of scripture is to use Bible passages to make people follow you. The New Testament knows nothing of this. New Testament spiritual authority is based on truth and trust (good character), not the role someone fills or the position they assume. Any church leader who says that you must do something simply because he or she has told you to has misunderstood what the Bible teaches about spiritual authority.
Let me give a real example of a leader who misunderstood his authority.
Rick* walked out to his mailbox on a sunny Maine afternoon. Inside was an envelope from our former pastor. With a mixture of fear and curiosity, the church deacon used his thumb to slit open the envelope as he walked up the drive. It contained nothing but a single white index card with these words: “You Levites have gone too far!”
With this phrase, our former pastor summoned up the entire context of the book of Numbers to support his opinion that his authority was equal to that of Moses. He believed this, despite a unanimous congregational vote which had found him disqualified for church leadership. He believed this, despite the fact that he had recently been committed to the local psychiatric unit at the hospital.
I am not making this up.
“You Levites have gone too far!” he wrote, perhaps from a padded cell.
What does this mean? These words are cryptic to anyone who has not spent some time studying the Old Testament. Our former pastor was quoting Moses when Moses called God’s judgment down on the rebels during Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16:7. Our pastor truly believed that the church removing him from abusive leadership was equivalent to Korah’s rebellion against Moses.
*not his real name
Since abusive leaders appeal to the Bible to prop up their authority, let’s look at three Bible passages which leaders misuse in order to say: “Because I’m your pastor, that’s why!”
1.) “Touch not the Lord’s Anointed” – This comes from Psalm 105:15, where God tells evildoers to avoid harming his servants the prophets. It is also alluded to when David refuses to kill King Saul despite Saul’s abuses and insane rage (1 Samuel 26:9).
But church leaders who use this phrase to rebuke their followers misunderstand the context and proper biblical interpretation. True spiritual leaders would never use these verses to make people follow them. Here’s why:
First, the context of Psalm 105:15 refers to the Patriarchs, not to prophets of later Israelite history. Specifically, the verse refers to the occasions when Abraham lied to various rulers about his wife Sarah (see Genesis 12 and 20). Don’t take my word for it. Look it up for yourself. Abraham had acted deplorably, but God still had his back because God had made a covenant with Abraham and loved him. So God afflicted Pharaoh’s household with diseases, and later threatened King Abimelech with death if he didn’t give Abraham back his wife. How unique and interesting.
While we can all take away from this verse the principle that God often protects his people despite our own failures, this poetry cannot be used by pastors or teachers as a special seal of unaccountability on their ministry. It is not a license to abuse or make people follow you blindly. If anything, it shows God’s great love for all of his people, despite our failings.
Second, the passage about David and Saul relates to David refusing to kill the man who had been literally anointed by God (through the prophet Samuel) as king. At least three things disqualify us from using this passage in the context of church leadership today:
First, we are no longer in a monarchy. Pastors are not kings.
Second, Saul had actually been anointed to be king by a genuine prophet at God’s clear command with real oil. And he still failed, struggled with insanity, consulted a sorceress, and committed suicide. Does your pastor really want to keep company with that hot mess?
Third, “not laying a hand on God’s anointed” in David’s context meant not killing Saul. Like not slaying him with a literal sword. To death. We have a term for that today: assassination. “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” didn’t mean not resisting Saul, not disobeying his commands, or not questioning his character. It meant not killing him. How do we know this? Because David had already resisted Saul, led a group of rebels outside of Saul’s authority, aided Saul’s enemies, rebuked Saul, questioned Saul, disobeyed Saul’s insane and harmful commands, and had made an alliance with Saul’s son Jonathan. All this he had done, but what he wouldn’t do was kill Saul and thus usurp his throne.
Psalm 105:15 and 1 Samuel 26:9 are fascinating and instructive. But they certainly cannot be used by church leaders today to support their claims of authoritarian impunity. In addition, 1 John 2:27 says that all believers have an anointing from God. For a pastor or teacher to claim a special anointing which requires everyone else to do whatever they say is counter-biblical and thus untrue.
2.) Appealing to the life of Moses – While my former pastor probably takes the cake for the most bizarre use of a Moses passage (“You Levites have gone too far!”), appeals to Moses’ authority by pastors are distressingly common. We don’t have time to deal with any verse specifically, but let me show why any comparison between a modern pastor’s authority and Moses’ authority is erroneous.
Moses filled a unique role in the Old Testament as a prophet, priest, and king. Think about it: he delivered the people from Egypt as a prophet; he interceded for the people of God as a priest; and he led the people of God as if he were their king. Prophet, priest, and king. That’s unique among all the characters of the Old Testament. In filling these concurrent roles, Moses functioned as a “type” for Christ. What is a “type”? We use the term “prototype” which means the very first edition of something, like the first clunky airplane, automobile, or microwave. In Moses’ case, he was a prototype for the Messiah.
How do we know this? Well, in Deuteronomy 18 God promised that he would send another prophet just like Moses. The Jews understood that this person would be the Messiah—the Savior of Israel who would deliver God’s people from all of their enemies. You can read about the Jewish expectations in Luke 1 where Zechariah praises God for sending a deliverer. And Jesus’ followers thought he might be “The Prophet,” that is, the Messiah. This was confirmed in Acts 3:22—Jesus was indeed the Moses-like Messianic Prophet of Deut. 18.
What do we learn from all of this? It’s actually pretty sobering. Since Moses filled a unique role as a prototype for Christ, his authority was likewise unique. That’s why he could ask God to open the ground to swallow the folks who rebelled against him.
This means that any church leader today who uses Moses as his or her pattern of authority is setting themselves up as a Messianic figure. Did you catch that? Leaders who appeal to Moses as the model for their own authority are actually claiming to be like Messiah. The Bible has a serious term for people who do this: false Christs (Matthew 24:24). A false Christ is a person who makes false claims about being a messiah and who leads people astray. The Bible commands us not to follow such people.
So let’s have no more comparison between Moses and pastors, okay?
3.) “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority” – This comes from Hebrews 13:17. And thankfully, since I have already written two posts about this verse, we need not spend much time on it. Suffice it to say that the Greek doesn’t say “obey.” Instead of using the normal word for “obey,” it uses the uncommon word “peitho” which means to persuade. Again, look it up in a Greek lexicon if you don’t believe me. Since “peitho” is in the middle voice, it means to “allow yourself to be persuaded by.” The verse is better translated, “Allow yourselves to be persuaded by those who guide you.”
This fits the New Testament criteria for authority which is based on truth and trustworthiness (good character). The New Testament never enables a person to claim spiritual authority simply because of his or her position. Instead, he or she must have the truth of God and must demonstrate godly character as described in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5.
It is a fearful thing to claim positional authority, that is, to say that someone must follow you because you fill a role as pastor, elder, or prophetess. When a leader says “you must obey me because I’m your pastor,” or “touch not the Lord’s anointed,” he or she shows a clear misunderstanding of scripture. By twisting scripture to say something it doesn’t mean, that person has spiritually abused you.
They have gone too far, just like those pesky Levites.
Posts in this Series:
Distortion #2: “Because I’m Your Pastor/Elder/Spiritual Leader, that’s Why!”
Distortion #4: Brother’s Keeper: Surveillance in Spiritually Abusive Churches
Distortion #5: “It Says in Deuteronomy…”: Misuse of the Old Testament
Distortion #6: God or Mammon: Logical Fallacy of the Excluded Middle
Distortion #7: I Committed Adultery Watching the Smurfs: James 4:4 Unpacked
Distortion #8: You Shall Be Holy Unto Me (So Ditch the Budweiser)
Distortion #9: “We Alone are the ‘Remnant,’ all 75 of Us!”
Distortion #10: Fun in the Shun? Confessions of an Excommunicator