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22. Challenging Spiritual Leaders (Numbers 12:1-15)

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Life of Moses (22)

July 22, 2018

Stephen Neill (source unknown) said, “Criticism is the manure in which God’s servants grow best.” But the truth is, many of God’s servants don’t like the smell of manure and get out of it fairly quickly. Almost thirty years ago, a survey showed that 20 percent of any given seminary graduating class will quit the ministry and find some other career within five years of entering the ministry. The number one reason these pastors bailed out was not low pay, moral problems, or health issues. The number one reason they left the ministry was the pressure of criticism (Ron Lee Davis, Mentoring [Thomas Nelson], p. 157).

In Numbers 11:4, the attacks against Moses came from “the rabble,” but now Moses’ sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron, speak out against him. Commentators agree that because Miriam’s name is placed before Aaron’s name and the verb in verse 1 is feminine singular, she was the instigator of this charge against their younger brother. As we saw in the incident of the golden calf, Aaron seems to have been more of a follower than a leader. So when Miriam brought up her criticism against Moses, Aaron lamely went along. But when the Lord confronted them and struck Miriam with a skin disease, Aaron was quick to repent.

The pretext for their criticism was Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman, but the real reason was jealousy about Moses’ superior leadership position over Israel. Miriam the prophetess and Aaron the high priest wanted equal billing with Moses. Perhaps Miriam felt threatened by Moses’ new wife in her role as the leader of Israel’s women (Eugene Merrill, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], ed. by John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, 1:228).

This is the only time the Bible mentions this wife. There are different views on who she was. Some think that she is the same as Zipporah, whom Moses married while he was a fugitive in Midian (Exod. 2:15-22; Habakkuk 3:7 equates the Cushites with the Midianites). But Moses had been married to Zipporah for a long time, whereas Numbers 12:1 seems to refer to a recent marriage.

Usually Cush in the Bible refers to dark-skinned people who lived in the southern Nile valley. So probably Zipporah had died and Moses married this unnamed woman who had been among the non-Israelites who came out of Egypt with Israel. Whether because she was not an Israelite or perhaps because of her dark skin, Miriam was unhappy with Moses for marrying this woman. She complained to Aaron, who sided with her. We do not know how widely they may have spread their criticism. But we do know (Num. 12:2), “The Lord heard it.” He always does! That statement is in the text to show that God was about to take up the cause of His chosen servant (Ronald Allen, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:798).

So this is a story about challenging God’s appointed spiritual leaders. The main lesson is:

While there are times when it is right to challenge spiritual leaders, we should never challenge the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think that as Americans, we do not have a biblical perspective on the subject of authority. We think that questioning or defying authority and rallying others to our cause is our constitutional right. An early United States Revolutionary flag pictures a coiled rattlesnake with the motto, “Don’t tread on me.” We resist the concept of authority. We don’t like submitting to anyone.

In a previous message on this subject (“Understanding Biblical Authority,” 5/6/2007, p. 1), I said:

When it comes to the church, most American evangelicals do not view it as a place where you submit to the leadership for the purpose of growth and accountability, but rather as a store where you shop as a consumer. If you like the place and it services your needs, you come back. If another place down the road offers a more pleasant experience, you move your business there. Thus pastors who are trying to market their churches don’t dare say anything that might offend or upset the customers. The customer is king. You want to please your customers. With this consumer view about the church, the idea of spiritual authority, of proclaiming, “Thus says the Lord,” seems odd and out of place.

So to understand and apply this narrative about Miriam and Aaron challenging Moses’ leadership, we need to consider a few basics about the subject of biblical spiritual authority.

1. God gives authority to spiritual leaders for the church’s blessing and protection.

Whether in the government, the church, or the home, God never grants authority for the power or benefit of those in authority. If a leader uses authority to dominate those under his authority for his own benefit, he is misusing that authority and God will hold him accountable. We need to understand one thing about Moses’ leadership role in Israel and then three things about leadership in the New Testament church:

A. Moses was the sole spiritual leader over Israel and their mediator to God.

Israel was not a democracy and Moses was not the leader who won the election! God chose Moses and appointed him to confront Pharaoh and to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt. God spoke with “Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend” (Exod. 33:11; Num. 12:8). Numbers 12 was written to vindicate Moses’ divinely given leadership over Israel (John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative [Zondervan], p. 386).

In this role, Moses was not a model for the senior pastor or the leader of a Christian ministry. Rather, he was a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, the prophet to come after Moses (Deut. 18:15; Acts 7:37). He was Israel’s sole, God-appointed leader who brought God’s word to Israel and Israel’s needs to God. The New Testament parallel is that Christ is the sole head of His church. No one is free to usurp that role. How then is the church governed?

B. A plurality of spiritually mature elders are to govern the church under the headship of Jesus Christ.

Whenever the New Testament refers to the elders of a particular local church, it always uses the plural. For example, Acts 14:23 reports concerning the churches that Paul and Barnabas had planted, “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Later (Acts 20:17), Luke writes, “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.” Paul wrote to Titus (1:5), “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” Since there was just one church per city, there were multiple elders in each church.

A plurality of elders over a single local church is God’s way of protecting the church against the abuses of authority that may easily happen if a single man runs the church. The elders must submit to the Lord and be accountable to one another and to the church. There is only one New Testament example of a one-man leader over a local church and it isn’t pretty. The apostle John wrote (3 John 9-10):

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.

C. The main job for elders is to shepherd and oversee God’s flock, not to lord it over them.

Paul told the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28), “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” They were to do this through building up the church through God’s word, exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting those who contradict (Acts 20:32; Titus 1:9).

In a similar way, Peter wrote (1 Pet. 5:1-3): “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”

Two times in the Lord’s rebuke of Miriam and Aaron (Num. 12:7, 8), He referred to Moses as “My servant.” Moses saw himself that way (Num. 11:11). He wasn’t trying to build an empire for himself. He wasn’t a politician, seeking to please the people so that he could retain his position of power. He was serving the Lord and trying to be obedient to the Lord’s purpose for His people. In the same way, church leaders should see themselves primarily as the Lord’s servants or stewards, accountable to Him (1 Cor. 4:1-1-5).

So the elders are not to run the church as they see fit. Rather, they are to submit every action and decision to the headship of Jesus Christ, seeking faithfully to apply God’s Word. As Ray Stedman said (Discovery Paper 3500, “A Pastor’s Authority”), “The task of the elders is not to run the church themselves, but to determine how the Lord in their midst wishes to run his church.”

D. The church is commanded to respect, honor, obey, and submit to spiritual leaders.

I’m guessing that that statement, especially the words “submit to and obey,” frightens some of you. It conjures up images of Jim Jones, who led his submissive followers to die en masse rather than to challenge his leadership. While not that extreme, some of you may have had bad experiences with authoritarian pastors who lorded it over the church and used the people in the church for their own evil advantage. So I want to cite some Scriptures so that you see that this is God’s Word, not my word:

1 Thessalonians 5:12: “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” You may think, “Okay, I can appreciate and esteem the elders, but that doesn’t say, ‘Submit to and obey.’” But it does say that these church leaders “have charge over you in the Lord.” The implication is that you should submit to their teaching from God’s Word.

1 Timothy 4:11-12: “Prescribe and teach these things. Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.” “Prescribe” translates a Greek word that referred to the transmitted orders of a military commander (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 156). Rather than allowing those in the church to disregard Timothy because he was relatively young (he was probably in his mid to late thirties), he was to “prescribe and teach” God’s authoritative commandments, backed up by his godly example.

1 Timothy 5:17: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” In the context (see v. 18), “double honor” refers both to respect and adequate financial support. Often there is a connection between respect and pay: if the church doesn’t pay a man a decent salary, they won’t respect him. But “double honor” also includes respect.

Titus 2:15: “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” Titus was to speak with all authority to help establish the churches on the island of Crete.

Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” This verse directly says, “obey and submit to.”

I realize that this point runs counter to the American way of thinking, but it is God’s inspired, authoritative word to His church. “But,” you may be thinking, “what if a leader is wrong? Am I just supposed to obediently submit to him?”

2. There are times when it is right to challenge spiritual leaders.

While Miriam and Aaron clearly were wrong to challenge Moses’ leadership …

A. To apply this passage to say that it is always wrong to challenge a spiritual leader would be wrong.

I have heard authoritarian pastors apply this text or David’s words about not touching the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam. 16:6; 24:6, 10; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam. 1:14, 16) to mean that pastors should be exempt from any criticism, correction, or challenge to their word. But that is to misapply God’s Word. Human leaders are fallible and subject to correction. If you think that a leader is wrong on an important matter or in sin, he may need correction. But the New Testament gives a proper way to challenge an elder whom you think is wrong. I’ll give you a hint: It is not to go to others in the church and criticize the elder behind his back!

If you think that a church leader is wrong on an important doctrinal issue, or if he wronged you in some way, or if he’s guilty of sin that would bring reproach on the name of Christ, the first step after prayer is to meet privately with the leader to talk about the matter. Perhaps you misunderstood what he said or did. So don’t come at him with angry accusations, but rather go humbly and ask questions to try to understand the situation more clearly.

If you do not get a satisfactory answer, then you should go with one or two others to seek the truth (Matt. 18:15-16). In line with this, Paul wrote (1 Tim. 5:19), “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.”

So it is not wrong to challenge or confront a leader whom you believe to be in the wrong. But it is wrong to gossip about that leader or to stir up opposition in the church to him. Also,

B. Before you challenge a spiritual leader, check your heart for the right motives.

It’s obvious in our text that Miriam and Aaron were jealous of Moses’ position as the main leader of Israel. They felt like they deserved a place alongside him. Their criticism of his marriage was just a pretext. The real issue was rivalry and the desire for personal power and recognition.

Before you criticize or challenge a spiritual leader, honestly examine your real motives. Make sure that you are not resisting the Word of God that the leader is proclaiming. Your motive should be God’s glory through the well-being of the church and the well-being of the spiritual leader. But, how should a leader respond when someone challenges or criticizes him?

3. When a leader is challenged or criticized, the proper response is always biblical humility.

Being criticized by his older sister and brother must have been especially painful for Moses. Verse 3 is put in the text to explain his reaction to their attack: “(Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.)” Some say that Moses could not have written that about himself or he wouldn’t be humble! Some argue that the Hebrew word translated “humble” should be translated “miserable.” In light of the attacks against Moses in chapters 11 & 12, he was more miserable than anyone on earth (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 798-799).

But I think that Moses wrote verse 3 to explain why he didn’t lash out in vindictive anger or self-defense against Miriam and Aaron. There are two main components of biblical humility: First, a humble person realizes that everything he has comes from the Lord by His grace (not by merit) and that he is first and foremost the Lord’s servant (1 Cor. 4:1, 7; Num. 12:7, 8). Moses met that qualification. Second, a humble person is consciously dependent on the Lord, not on his own ingenuity or strength (2 Cor. 1:8-9; 3:5).

Sometimes humility means not defending yourself and letting the Lord defend you. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [Revell], 1:614) pointed out that when God’s honor was attacked, as with the golden calf, Moses was bold as a lion; but when his own honor was attacked, he was as mild as a lamb.

But there are times when a leader’s integrity is challenged, so that to be silent would undermine the Word that he preaches. Then he should defend himself. Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Second Corinthians are defenses both of Paul’s integrity and the message he preached. Jesus defended Himself at times (John 5, 8; 18:36-37). Sometimes those who challenge a leader want to discredit him so that they don’t have to obey the Word of God that he is preaching. Such persons need to be refuted (Titus 1:9-11).

4. We should never challenge the Lord Jesus Christ.

Since Moses was a type of Christ, the proper application of this text is that to challenge Jesus Christ as the sole authority over His church would be a serious sin that would incur God’s discipline. He is the head of His church. His will is revealed in Scripture, which we must obey. He is Lord; we are not Lord!

Why did God discipline Miriam but not Aaron? Probably because she was the instigator of the attack on Moses. Aaron was immediately repentant, perhaps because he didn’t want what happened to Miriam to happen to him! Her “leprosy” was not like modern leprosy, known as Hansen’s disease. Rather, it was some type of skin infection that either turned the skin white like snow or flaky like snow. It caused ceremonial defilement and required that the person be quarantined outside the camp for a period of time (Lev. 13:4; Num. 5:2-4). James Boice (The Life of Moses [P&R Publishers], p. 303) suggests that if Miriam was bothered by Moses’ marrying a dark-skinned woman, God may have been saying, “You don’t like dark skin? I’ll give you white skin!” God hates racism!

Although God healed Miriam in response to Moses’ prayer, she had to remain outside the camp and bear her shame for seven days. This also served to teach all of Israel not to challenge God’s servant Moses.

God said of Moses (Num. 12:7), “He is faithful in all My household.” Hebrews 3:1-6 cites this verse and applies it to Jesus as one greater than Moses (Heb. 3:3): “For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house.” God spoke with Moses “mouth to mouth” and “openly” (Num. 12:8), so that Moses could speak God’s word to Israel. But Jesus, the prophet greater than Moses (Deut. 18:15-18), was eternally with God and was God. He revealed God to us as no one else can (John 1:1, 18; 14:9).

You may think, “Oh, I would never challenge the Lord Jesus Christ!” But many who profess to believe in Jesus do not submit to His teachings, many of which are hard. He said that if you do not judge your sinful anger or lust, you will be thrown into the fiery hell (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-30). Do you obey that or challenge it by your disobedience? He said that you cannot serve God and wealth (Luke 16:13). Do you challenge that or submit to it by managing your money according to the principles of His Word?


So while criticism may be the manure in which God’s servants grow best, before you try to help a church leader grow by piling on the manure, check yourself! Have you put yourself properly under the elders’ God-given authority? Are you showing proper respect and honor to the elder you’re critical of? Are your true motives for challenging the leader acceptable before God? Are you in submission to the truth from God’s Word that the elder is teaching? While sometimes a leader may need some fertilizing, make sure that you do it properly. And never challenge the Lord Jesus Christ or His commandments. He is the only Lord of His church!

Application Questions

  1. Are you wary of spiritual authority because you were in a church where the leaders abused their authority? How can you overcome this?
  2. How can you determine whether a matter is of sufficient importance to challenge a church leader? What guidelines apply?
  3. What is the difference between teaching with true biblical authority and teaching with opinionated dogmatism?
  4. How can a leader know whether to defend himself or just let God defend him? Use Scripture to support your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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