Do You Need Covering?


By Wayne Jacobsen, a new chapter for the book he’s writing on The Phenomenon of the Dones

Perhaps no teaching has been used more to subjugate the will of one human to another than that of spiritual covering. Under the guise of spiritual authority, people are actually instructed to obey a religious leader even at the cost of not following Jesus himself.

I don’t hear much talk of it stateside any more, though I know it’s here, but it came up often in my recent trip through South Africa. Spiritual covering is the idea that as a believer you need something or someone above you to protect you from deception and error. Some traditions teach that your local pastor or congregation is your covering. As long as you follow their teachings and submit critical decisions to them, they will keep you from slipping off the narrow way. Others claim they are covered by a denomination or denominational executive, or even the Pope himself.

It assumes God only works through hierarchical leadership structures and if you don’t follow them you are not following Christ. If you have a covering God will protect and bless you. If you do not, you are in rebellion and not only can the enemy deceive you but also God will not care for you.

Those who teach this false doctrine use it to exploit people and demand their unquestioned obedience. Those who believe it are paralyzed by fear, especially when the Spirit inside is trying to warn them away from leaders who are exploiting them, or a teaching that manipulates them. It confuses people when what God reveals in them runs counter to the desires of their leaders. In those moments they will find it easier to believe they must be wrong and defer to the alleged anointing, education, or charisma of the leader. It’s no wonder we have so many weak and confused Christians who are dependent on someone else to tell them what to believe or do.

It’s amazing how much traction this doctrine has gained over the centuries especially when it has absolutely no biblical support! Chalk that up to the fact that those teaching it are beneficiaries of it, whether to sate their ego or garner their income. Nothing in Scripture is written that tells us we are safer following a human leader than we are following Jesus himself by the Spirit. In fact much is written that argues against the very idea.

The only place in Scripture where covering is mentioned is Adam and Eve using fig leaves after the fall. Their shame sought a covering to hide from God and each other. So why does their first reaction to sin become our model for safety, especially when it’s God they were hiding from? And that’s exactly what happens under covering theology. It puts someone or something between you and God to protect yourself from him and surrender your allegiance to another flawed human being. Not surprisingly it also fragments the body of Christ as we divide up into separate fiefdoms of covering.

The only other Scripture I’ve heard quoted in the defense of covering is Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” The first part of this verse is intentionally translated to over-hype ecclesiastical authority. The early followers didn’t have institutional structures or those managing them that people had to submit to unquestioningly. They had relationships with more mature followers and this verse encouraged them to yield to their wisdom as they learned to follow God themselves. These leaders didn’t tell people what to do, but taught them to engage God and to follow him.

The second part of this verse is often twisted to teach that believers are accountable to human leaders when the clear meaning of the verse is that the leaders are accountable to God for what they teach and how they treat his people. Jesus never intended that those who lead in his kingdom would get between him and his people. The glory of the new covenant is that “all will know him, from the least to the greatest” and that they will be able to follow him because he will write his ways on their hearts and minds. (Hebrews 8) True leaders equip people to know Christ and to follow him, not get people to follow them instead.

In Finding Church, I wrote of a friend from Australia who drew a great distinction between elders in the first century church and what elders became in the second generation. Ignatius, a disciple of John the apostle, helped make that twist. Prior to Ignatius elders were seen as guardians of a gift—“Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Every believer was a temple in which Christ dwelled, and elders guarded that gift from anyone trying to subjugate his followers to their own desires or vision.   But as the early believers began to form hierarchical pyramids of authority, Ignatius demanded loyalty to leaders as guardians of right faith and practice. Thus, in one generation leadership had changed from those who equip others to follow the Spirit within, to those who would conform them to rules and doctrine from without. Instead of serving people’s spiritual journeys, they became policemen to compel people to do what they think best.

This covering theology may well have been one those “doctrines of demons” Paul warned us to reject. For under the guise of protecting people from Satan’s deception, they take them captive to their own will or wisdom. People are taught to trust some other person’s “anointing” or academic training. But it simply doesn’t work. I’ve never met a pastor or other leader who got caught in a sexual affair or misusing ministry funds who wasn’t under a designated covering of some sort.

Wasn’t it Lucifer’s goal in the garden to separate the first humans from God getting them to trust their own ways instead of his and cover up in their shame? Wasn’t this what Israel expressed when they ran from God’s presence, encouraging Moses to listen for them promising they would obey him instead? And wasn’t this why Samuel warned Israel that their desire for a king was a rejection of God and would backfire on them in ways they couldn’t imagine?

We have a long history of wanting to put someone or something between God and us in the misguided fear that God can’t lead us personally. And didn’t those choices always inure to the detriment of humanity, as their designated leaders would end up serving their own interests rather than God’s? It gives away responsibility for what’s true to someone who is usually vested in our response to it. Some of the dearest people I know get their agenda and God’s confused quite easily and all the more so when their livelihood depends on it.

The Incarnation of Jesus invited each of us inside a relationship with him where he would be our shepherd. He said that his sheep would know his voice and that he will lead them into safe pasture so they would never need to be afraid again. The work of Jesus puts our trust in him, not religious leaders. Because he conquered sin and shame on the cross we each have the opportunity to know him, not trust someone else to tell us what he’s like. Any need for a covering was removed as we are given full and free access to God.

Can you imagine what would have happened if Jesus would have submitted to the “spiritual covering” of his day? The Pharisees would have silenced him and separated him from the very people he came to rescue. Unfortunately the religious leaders of his day were among those who had most lost touch with God and his nature.

That’s why Jesus didn’t tell us he would send us a book to guide us, a religious structure to protect us, or spiritual leaders to control us. He said he would leave us with his Spirit who “would guide us into all truth.” The reality of the New Testament community is that God lives in us all by the Spirit and thus has access to every heart and mind and that those who know him would recognize that voice and follow him.

Though Paul told Timothy to appoint elders in Ephesus that could encourage people with sound doctrine, he did not intend for those elders to supplant Jesus or to infringe on his relationship with them. When they did, John wrote to Ephesus again many years later, to let them know that the elders had become the problem demanding allegiance to them over their obedience to Christ. He had to remind them that they each had an anointing from the Holy One so they could discern between what’s true and what’s not.

So, no, you do not need a covering to protect you spiritually. In fact it will have the opposite effect if it convinces you that you cannot trust his Spirit within you to be your protection and guide. Does that mean, then, you’re on your own then and if a bit theologically naïve, you are at risk? If the Holy Spirit dwells in you how could you be? He is able to keep you safe in the arms of the Father against any lie that would deceive you whether it comes from the evil one or from the best-intentioned religious leader.

Haven’t you heard a teacher say something that had all the biblical prooftexts one could want, but left you restless inside, questioning whether something was amiss even if you couldn’t identify it? Like a teaching on spiritual covering perhaps? That’s his Spirit helping you discern what’s true and what’s false. When religious leaders teach you to trust them instead of the Spirit’s compass within you, you’ll get very confused as to how Jesus wants to lead you. Your allegiance belongs only to him, not to people or organizations who claim to speak for him.

But won’t that lead to chaos and error when everyone does what is right in their own eyes? To the degree that people follow self instead of Jesus, it will. We all know people who claim to be led by the Spirit who do horribly self-serving and destructive things in his name. We might think it helpful if more mature brothers or sisters could rein that in with command authority, but Scripture gives no place for that to happen and history gives us no example where that authority was not soon corrupted to take people’s eyes off of Jesus.

Jesus warned his disciples that they would not “lord over” others as demonstrated in the worldly structures around them (Mark 10:42-45). His leaders would be servants, not commanders. They help people come to know Christ and teach them how to follow him. History teaches us that whenever humans draw his authority to themselves they will almost always end up using it in self-serving ways. They will make decisions for the good of the institution that employs them rather than the individual they were called to serve.

So how do we respond to spiritual authority? It is helpful to separate institutional authority from spiritual authority. They are not the same thing. If you are part of an institutional system then yield to its way of keeping order or you’ll only be a destructive source of division and chaos. When you can no longer follow along or feel it is compromising your own life with God, then you need to leave and see what else he has for you. Just because someone has authority in a system, does not mean they have authority from God.

God’s authority comes through the power of an indestructible life, their integrity and the authenticity with which they live. They are not playing a role, but have simply learned to live in growing trust of God’s love and can encourage others to do the same. Authority doesn’t come from a vocation, academic training, or a place on the flow chart. They are people you respect not only for their insight and wisdom but also the tenderness and compassion with which they treat people. They do not marshal people to build their own kingdom, but build up others so they can follow Christ with greater freedom and joy. When you are near someone at rest in God’s goodness and though their insight may challenge you, you’ll find them the safest people to be around in your struggles, failures, or questions. Give their words weight, but resist the urge to grow dependent on them instead of letting them help you learn to listen to God’s Spirit in you.

No person is meant to be a covering between you and God. Anyone who seeks to tell you what to do on God’s behalf proves by doing so that they are not acting in his authority. True leaders will speak the truth as they see it in love and entrust it to the Spirit and your conscience to convince you of what’s true. They don’t exploit people or demand their loyalty. They simply serve you, as Jesus grows bigger in your heart.

I know people reading this will fear that people following Jesus will become arrogant and independent, but I don’t find that to be true of people who are looking to follow Jesus. This is a family after all, not a free-for-all. They realize that Truth exists apart from their own preferences or best wisdom. Anyone seeking to follow Jesus as he makes himself known within them will soon realize that they navigate in uncertain space. As Paul says we all see through a darkened mirror as we seek to discern his ways.

Perhaps that’s why we want the security of the pseudo-confidence of anyone who claims to know it all or some doctrinal structure to protect us. But they are only an illusion. No one hears God perfectly, interprets Scripture with complete accuracy, or knows your heart like God does, which always makes me suspicious of those who proclaim certainty and speak as if their words are proclamations straight from God.

So where is our safety net, if there is no spiritual covering? Why it is in him, of course! God the Father watches over you, Jesus walks with you and his Spirit dwells in you. Having any other spiritual covering is an act of distrust in his ability to care for you. If we are wanting to follow his ways he will let our hearts resonate with those things that are true and make us restless in those things that are false. In time circumstances and whether or not we are finding his fullness within will help us learn where we are listening to him and where we are dressing up our own desires in God-language. If it doesn’t become evident to us, it will become evident to those around us.

That’s why learning to listen to him incubates a spirit of humility and openness. Those growing in Christ do not become independent or anarchist. Learning to follow Jesus is a life-long journey, separating his desires from our own and his way of doing things from their own ways and they will find themselves drawn into those spaces where they can test between what is true and what is false.

Always look for what his Spirit is revealing to you to be consistent with the character of Scripture. Always treat most suspiciously those leadings that perfectly dovetail with your own desires and whims. God’s ways are higher than ours and mostly his insights will challenge our conventional and preferred thoughts to lead us more deeply into his reality. Truth will almost always challenge us before our surrender to it will set us free.

Of course anyone who willingly walks alone on this journey and without the wisdom and counsel of others is a fool. Find some other men and women you can share with and let their thoughts and insights help you discern how the Spirit is leading you, or whether you’re just reacting to last night’s pizza. Your friends won’t always get it right, but they will help you find your blind spots. Be most careful when they are trying to talk you out of a difficult obedience, and most open when they help you see how pride or dishonesty is slipping in as our flesh tries to masquerade as his Spirit

And in the big-ticket items of theology or direction, find some others who are a bit further down the track than you. There are elders, teachers, prophets, and apostles who are gifts to help us know God better and learn his ways, just know that the real ones don’t carry the title on their business cards and are not building an institution in their name. Almost at every stage God where God has shifted my thinking he put me alongside some older men and women who could encourage his work in me and provide warnings when I was being sidetracked. Those who are wise, gently honest, and without the need to control your response are great gifts. We need more of these genuine elders scattered in the body of Christ who are courageous enough to walk alongside others and encourage their growth without controlling them.

We also have opportunity to think alongside men and women who have lived before us by the writings they’ve left that have endured the test of time. Interact with their thoughts and see how they might apply to your own journey, especially those who have lived thrived in faith through dark and desperate times.

In these days of disintegrating institutions Jesus is calling the church back to himself. As long as you are cowering beneath any kind of human contrived covering, you’ll ignore him in deference to them. He has made a way for you to be deeply connected to him and he is more certain than any covering humanity can devise. Put your trust in him and look to follow him each day as best you see him.

I’ve heard some people who when asked what spiritual covering they are under will respond that Jesus is the only covering they need. I get what they mean by that, but perhaps it is better said that Jesus came to do away with any need for covering at all. Now we can with unveiled faces behold him and in doing so be transformed by him.

There’s no good reason for anyone else to stand in the way of that.


This is part 19 in a series on The Phenomenon of the Dones by Wayne Jacobsen who is the author of Finding Church and host of a podcast at  You can read the first half here and subsequent parts below. It will eventually be made into a book for people to read more easily.

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20 thoughts on “Do You Need Covering?”

  1. Wow! Wow! Wow! You literally described how i was raised/taught in my childhood, teens and early adulthood years! Nail on the head, I couldn’t have described it better! So glad to be on a journey of relearning who the real father is! It’s crazy how trusted and completely backwards religion makes father out to be. And though it may take what seems like forever to us, for father to reroute all the brain and heart space all that teaching corrupted. Healing and restoring does happen! And so much better….the stuff He replaces it with! ❤

  2. Ffiead fahfve been thinking on the parable, the sower sewed some seeds. Some seeds fell on a rocky path and the crows picked them off the ground and consumed the seeds. Jesus soon tells us that the represents Satan. Is he telling us that wolves in sheeps’ clothing will try to consume (tale advantage of, take money from, try to guilt these people out of having a relationship with Jesus so they can use these immature people for their own selfish motives?)

  3. Excellent article. I hadn’t heard your teaching before. Women in particular need to hear it.
    I wouldn’t call those “fools”, however, who have to make the journey alone for a season. God valled Paul into the Zwilderness for three years.

    1. I didn’t mean those who of necessity had to walk alone, but those by choice. I’ve added the word “willingly” to help make that distinction. Thanks for bringing it up.

  4. You must have had a few encounters with some (such as myself) who, at one time, were part of the “shepherding/discipleship” movement which garnered some following during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Those of us who survived continue to deal with the wounds inflicted.

    1. I have met many, Roger. Some still brutalized by the pain, but many more who have used the pain to make them wiser and have gotten on to some amazing journeys of living in his love and helping others recognize the repressive tentacles of bad religious leadership.

  5. This teaching is alive and thriving state-side. I believe it’s picking up momentum too. Husband’s are a wive’s and children’s spiritual covering. With the televising of people like the Duggars, I think evangelicals took notes and started implementing their strategies. This teaching is sooooo harmful. It causes so much pain and is a form is gas-lighting people into obedience. Entire congregations are threatened that they need to obey their pastors into all kinds of selfish ambitions. Please, continue to share truth! Pray for those coming out of this, as the road to healing is difficult. So much error taught and so much error to unteach. My heart is sad!

  6. I was taught this toxic and destructive doctrine – submit to your spiritual authority and all will be well. I was told this is the true way to be right with God, and as I sincerely wanted to please God, I bought into it. But when I became a leader in an institutional church, and my peer started bullying and abusing me, it all fell apart. Despite the fact that we were both supposedly “spiritual authorities”, when I raised my concerns about his behaviour, I was told that I must submit to this man or resign from leadership myself. Needless to say, I now see how completely antithetical this doctrine is to the teachings of Jesus.

  7. Thank you so very much for articulating what I’ve felt in my spirit for years. I left institutional church six years ago and though I’ve walked alone most of that time, the Lord has led me to some remarkable brothers and sisters from whom I can draw wisdom and insight. All while facing critical judgement and rejection from those who are still a part of the “system”. I thank God that I am able to forgive and pray for those who haven’t found their freedom yet. Brother, your words have brought me comfort. I’m blessed to know that I am truly never alone.

  8. This is liberating! Very interesting read. I have left the “church’ about a month ago and is living an incredible journey with my Papa.

  9. Great article, I agree, having spent a significant part of my life in a church which worked this way.
    I’d appreciate correction of the spelling and grammar.
    The word translated ‘submit’ in Hebrews 13:17 only appears here in the NT. One study I read said it’d be better translated ‘be willing to be persuaded by’ which I found helpful.

    1. You’re right about Hebrews 13, which is why I made the comment about it being over-translated. As to any spelling or grammar errors, I’m not aware of any. I had it proofed, but I don’t spend the same time on these that I would book content. This is more of a journal and sometimes the rough edges come through. It will be professionally edited before the book is assembled. But if you want to point out anything, I’m happy to fix it.

  10. I don’t have the gift of being able to write all that I would like to regarding this subject succiently, but I pray to love Christ more each day and to be faithful to the will of God for my life. I have studied and wrestled with this question for almost 30 years now and I always arrive at the same conclusion, the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ. Only because it is protected by the HolySpirit, can its children be free to not fall into the ever so tempting snare of belonging to the church of “I”. In total honesty I did not read your whole article simply didn’t have enough time, but my sense is this is the farthest thing in the world from what you believe right now. I understand that, but I would continue to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church. You might just find what you’re looking far in the place you least likely thought you would find it. May God continue to bless and protect you and your family and all those that you love.

    1. There is so much that the Catholic Church does and stands for that I find incongruous with Scripture and the work of the Spirit. That’s not to say there are some good things there and there aren’t some lovely people living out the life of Jesus in incredible ways. I can appreciate that others find Christ there and find their connection to other believers, but I don’t think it is what Jesus had in mind when he talked about building his church. To say it alone represents the Church of Jesus in the world is to miss just how big and vast this church is. No institutional approach is going to represent him well over time, because this is a family living under God, not a corporation building an empire to itself in the name of God.

  11. Good chapter, Wayne. I remember as a teenager being taught this lie at a Bill Gothard conference. There is so much un-learning I’ve had to do over the past 10 years. I humbly take on the responsibility for myself to walk, listen, learn and obey the Messiah. I cherish the trusting relationships of those on the same path. I need their set of eyes and mature wisdom. Thank you for covering this subject throughly.

  12. Appreciated Wayne……. I experienced something a couple of days ago, while it is not entirely connected to your chapter, I’m just plain busting to share it with someone! Short story, having come out of a Bible-based cult in my teens and seeing the mess that made of me (and so many others), I spent many years studying the whole ‘cult’ phenomena, poring over any material online, books et cetera I could get my hands on trying to get a handle on it all to not only untie my own knots, but hopefully God might be able to use me to help others suffering the same thing. Though I felt I had gained what many may describe as an exceptional grasp, not only on the phenomenon itself but on the many differing groups throughout history that have demonstrated the same overt authoritarianism, legalism etc. that comes from embracing an ‘essential’ position re-God and his salvation which they then claim to be exclusive to them or their group – I always found myself feeling a little nervous engaging with these folk (heart speeds up, brain fogs up, nervousness et cetera) even though once I settled down, I felt that most of the time I was doing a great job drawing them to the common ground of God’s love towards us and how that’s expressed through Christ crucified and how we can reengage with him as his adopted children through trust, love et cetera.
    Having enjoyed regular fruitful interactions with Jehovah’s Witnesses over the years, I decided I would accept an invitation to one of their regional conventions being held just down the road from me, and this time round, I found myself really at peace and enjoying being there – keen to know what God was wanting to help me understand about these folk or if there was someone he wanted me to interact with. Lo and behold, an enthusiastic guy around my age immediately sat down and started the spiel (as no doubt wearing my flip-flops gave it away that I wasn’t one of the crowd) which I found myself (this time round) easily responding to with humour friendliness gentleness – and the guy quickly relaxed and we found ourselves chitchatting through the conference until one of the old school authoritarian boys chatted us :-). I gave the guy my phone number before I went home and found myself looking to the Lord in amazement at just how relaxed I was and asking what had changed as this is something I always wished for. What came into my heart was even more amazing, as I found myself understanding that whenever we are only representing our heavenly dad and his love to others i.e. a person and his loving grace/favour – there is no competing, contending conflicting, offending, dividing et cetera, whereas when we are representing a cause, belief system, a group et cetera then there is always the very real potential of the competing, contending et cetera. My thoughts immediately went to thinking that this was how he approached things when he was walking in the flesh and was at the heart of why he was either totally received or totally rejected – no doubt, depending on the audience’s heart’s desire to trust his (same) heavenly dad.
    What blew me away was that there is no missing the implications here re-our ability to walk together as one family under one father…….

    1. Hi Ken… Love that! I love how God’s shaping of our heart allows us to love without boundaries, and without fear that our differences with others can contaminate us. Blessings to you.

  13. Vashra Araeshkigal

    This was excellent. I have just stumbled over your blog/text via a friend’s post on Facebook and now I shall have to go back to page one and read everything else you’ve written. I dearly hope it’s in the same ballpark.

    But…what is a “ignligious leader”? I was hoping I got to learn an other English word, but I couldn’t find it, so now I must assume it is a typo, and I’m wondering what you meant to put there.

    1. Glad you felt the article resonated with your own journey. And no worries about “ignligious.” It’s definitely a typo and have no idea how it got there since it wasn’t in the original post. Somehow, it got corrupted, however, and we can’t blame auto-correct since it’s not even a word. Must have got tweaked in one of the edits I did. Changed back now. Thanks for pointing it out!

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