The Church Uncovered: A new answer to the question, “Who is your covering?”
Originally published January 3, 2005
The question of who provides a “covering” to a ministry, a group, or an individual is one that has arisen in the church over the past years. The term “covering” refers to a “spiritual covering” and the underlying assumption to the question is of course that any ministry without a covering provided by a church, denomination, or ministry board of some variety must be somehow rogue, unsoundly-founded, in doctrinal err, experiencing unprotected exposure to the wiles of the Evil One, or at least at risk to one or more of the foregoing. A thorough consideration of this teaching on “spiritual covering” will reveal these matters to be red herrings.
A Very Cursory Survey of Existing Literature
The problem here is that this notion of “covering” is not supported biblically, at least not in the manner it is typically practiced or preached. A quick Googling turns up several interesting articles:
- My Global Destiny says there are three kinds of spiritual covering.
- New Covenant Ministries offers “Understanding the Law of Spiritual Covering” on its “Deliverance Page.” There seems to be an ominous lack of scripture references in the explanation.
- SLM Publications exposes spiritual covering as a myth; the link is to an excerpt from a book titled Charismatic Captivation about spiritual abuse.
- Antioch Churches provides “22 Characteristics of a Healthy Covering” which compares healthy and unhealthy coverings – kind of a middle position on the subject I guess.
- Oasis Fellowship provides a list of where “covering” is used in the Bible… none of them as used in this context.
In addition to my Googling, additional material is found by surfing from other sites:
- Frank Viola’s Book addresses the subject, and offers the introduction online.
- Lambert Dolphin offers his own foreword to Frank Viola’s book.
- Paul Viera provides a thorough consideration of the subject.
Since the subject is dealt with well and more thoroughly in the links provided, I will try not to re-cover the same ground that much. If you only read one or two of the above, I recommend Viera’s paper as a good summary, void (or at least well-toned-down) of the harshness in the critiques of some. Rather than hunting abusers, Viera is simply seeking a balanced biblical answer to an honest question.
In the introduction to Viola’s book, we find,
Let us widen the question a bit. What do people really mean when they push the “covering” question? I submit that what they are really asking is: ‘Who controls you?'” and with this observation we arrive at the crux of why the question must be asked in the first place. The answer to the question of whether or not the teaching on “spritual covering” is biblically supported is probably “No.” The next questions then, are why it exists, where it comes from, and whether or not it is damaging. There are many things in the church which are not scripturally based but which are also not malicious and not damaging. I’m sure the early church didn’t use “comment cards” or offerring plates, but these things are not necessarily damaging to the present life and health of the church or its members. Unfortunately, it would appear that the teaching on spiritual coverings is of a different nature than comment cards and offerring trays.
Spiritual Covering for Ministries
In practice, someone who submits a ministry to the spiritual covering of another group also submits to the authority of that group. Whence came the authority posessed by this other group? It may become typical for the leader of the submitted ministry to seek the counsel and approval of the other group when making decisions concerning the function of the ministry. While it is wise to seek good counsel when making a major decision, the necessity of approval from the outside source should be a foreign concept to the context at hand. It is not. While things may start out innocently enough, I suggest that over time, the desire for counsel in large matters tends to become the need for approval in small matters. I would suggest that the power attendant with authority will eventually corrupt the relationship.
Notably, this teaching of “spiritual covering” is commonly found in places with more of a low church context than those which are of a high church tradition. I would surmise that the existing structure found in the high churches negates the necessity for this teaching since a formal heirarchy exists. Some in the low church tradition seem to have felt a need to re-establish some measure of heirarchy, and this doctrine appears, on the surface, to be an application to low church expression of a high church principle. Unfortunately low church had intended to reject at least some of the heirarchy seen in the high church traditions, and this teaching of spiritual covering may in some manner be a means of reestablishing what was formerly rejected.
In my article “Servant Leadership & The Fivefold Ministries: Ephesians 4 Gifts Reconsidered, I suggest that the Fivefold Ministries should operate outside of a heirarchical leadership structure, and that such a heirarchical structure is not well-rooted in the pages of the New Testament with regard to the makeup of the church. The most appropriate discourse here perhaps is this:
Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell youbut not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,  and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi  by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:1-12 (ESV)
I would wish to avoid the harsh criticism offered proponents of the concept of spiritual covering. I was close to this teaching for years though I could never fully imbibe it… but from this experience I know that at least some of the ministries who teach this are well-intentioned and function in the integrity of wanting to exhibit servant leadership. Unfortunately, my consideration of this matter has culminated in the opinion that it is not possible to hold the throughly heirarchical view of church authority necessary to suppor the doctrine of spiritual covering and still exhibit New Testament servant leadership. The two are incompatible.
Is the doctrine of spiritual covering abusive or damaging? Abuse is such an emotive word, and one laced with an accusatorial stance that I would wish to avoid its use. However, I have come to believe that this teaching is a damaging one, and therefore even where it is exercised in sincerity and integrity, there is damage, even unwittingly. The result is therefore a distortion of God’s intended authority structure. I stop short of calling it abuse in every situation because the definition may or may not require the presence of intent. On this nuance rests the answer to whether or not the practice of this teaching is abusive.
A “flat” leadership structure for the church somehow emerges or is suggested by the observations here against a heirarchical authority structure. One of the most common expressions of this today is in the many expressions of house church, in which context Viera’s article is set. Against the notion that spiritual covering counters the threat of doctrinal impurity, he writes,
Do we under-estimate the ability of the Holy Spirit to be able to keep us on track? Look at the church in Thessalonica. Paul probably only spent three months there before being chased out of town. That means that the oldest believer was only three months old. Paul was sure that his labour there was in vain, until he sent Timothy there to investigate what was left of the church. Surprisingly, Timothy found the church strong in faith and love and thriving (1Thess. chapters 1 + 2).
Reading this account reminded me of China, which expelled christian missionaries in the early 1950’s. It was years before things opened up enough that news came back from inside China â€” where some had expected that the church would not survive, the news was good. The church was alive and well, and was actually growing, thriving. It had gone underground, become destructured to meet the conditions under which it existed. It met in houses and in secret. It seems an easy observation now that this form of persecution fostered the “spontaneous expansion of the church” (to steal a phrase from Roland Allen) and that in many ways the situation there was a better one for the spread of the gospel than the one under which we labour in the West. Similarly, in the early church, it took 200 years for them to designate a building as being used primarily for church functions, having met only in homes until that time (for more detail on this, refer to my recent blog post, The Church in the House, with links to an article on the subject by Peter Davids and Siegfried Grossmann). The indication then is that there is no detrimental effect to the growth or health of the church as a result of operating outside a “spiritual covering” which has a man-made heirarchical authority inherent within it. Naturally this statement is based on a cursory consideration of the three major samples listed. On the contrary, one just might conclude the opposite to be true.
Spiritual Covering for Individuals
Having dismantled the necessity of a spiritual covering for ministries and noted that this teaching is not scriptural and is actually damaging, we must consider any application to the individual. In the case of individuals, it must be similarly concluded that the teaching of spiritual covering is damaging. If heirarchical leadership structures are dismantled, the individual believer becomes re-connected with Christ, the Head. In this manner, the believer can look to Christ directly for protection from evil as well as for guidance and direction.
I would further suggest that when individually applied, the teaching of spiritual covering can lead to anemic Christians, void of some of the power of the blood of Christ. Practically, the believer may look to his pastor (or whoever is next up the chain) for protection from evil or for prayer for particular ills or challenges which the believer feels require “more authority” in order to face properly. Further, the believer’s looking to a pastor or other “higher-up” for specific “leadership” at various junctures can translate into “just tell me what to do.” In this scenario, the believer can tend to become not merely anemic, but lobotomized as well. I don’t mean this to sound as harsh as it does, but strong words here are intended to convey the severity of the tranferrence to man of the authority and position that belongs rightfully and only to Christ, the Head. As I point out in the above-referenced article on the Fivefold Ministries, there is no “neck” in the analogy of Christ as the Head of the body.
Accountability is normally the individualized concern that is presumed to be provided by the heirarchical “covering” theology. This accountability ensures doctrinal purity and prevention of moral failures. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, and it never has worked this way through all of church history â€” heirarchically structured church has been as guilty of these failures as any, perhaps moreso since there is an implicit trust that is, in reality, undue… which makes it all the more grievous. On the subject of accountability, I refer again to Viera’s article, which handles these points very well. He also makes the valid observation that the practice of making men accountable to men rather than to God is foreign to the New Testament and places another man in the position of God.
It may be summed up that the teaching of the necessity of a “spiritual covering” is not founded scripturally, and has been damaging in its application â€” and in some contexts, it has actually been abusive. The outworking of this teaching corrupts leaders and cripples “laity,” ultimately wounding all members of the body. As such, this teaching cannot remain a part of a healthy structure of church leadership or understanding of the authority either of church leadership or of the individual believer. Though potentially painful, it must be purged wherever it is found in our churches. Let all men seek wise counsel from one another, but ultimately look directly to the Head, Christ, in all matters.
Note: There are comments on this article elsewhere, or below.