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 TheGodJourney.com. 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.
- Part 8: Five Factors Contributing to the Decline in “Church Attendance”
- Part 9: An Invitation Not An Imposition
- Part 10: The Conversations that Matter Most
- Part 11: Monetizing Ministry
- Part 12: Handling the Truth
- Part 13: Do You Have Community?
- Part 14: Reaching Across the Divide
- Part 15: Waiting for Revival
- Part 16: How Much Did Paul Get It Wrong?
- Part 17: Drawing a Line where Lines Don’t Have to be Drawn
- Part 18: Intentionally Relational
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