Spiritual covering is a biblically illegitimate, bad idea, that just won’t go away.
Christians often live far below their potential. What we express with our mouths often does not match what we express with our lives: it’s the profession-expression gap. While our behavior does not save us, it does have kingdom impact. Few things hinder Christ’s interests in the lives of unbelievers more effectively than the poor testimony of His own. It is not a matter of living some sort of idealistic, perfect, or fault-free existence in order to qualify as a bona fide Christian witness. Romans 8:19 says the creation awaits the manifestation of “sons.” That is relational in essence. What the world longs to see is authenticity in relationships: with God, each other, and the world. Perplexed leaders throughout history have attempted to address this profession-expression gap by preaching and teaching various forms of “discipleship” and “accountability.” However, the result is frequently counterproductive and often disastrous.
An Bad Idea that Just Won’t Go Away
One of the deficient methods used historically[i] to attempt to close this gap, which is experiencing modified and expanded resurgence in the emergent apostolic movement, is the doctrine of “spiritual covering.” Those of us over forty are old enough to remember the discipleship movement of the seventies. It was the poster child of good intentions gone bad. To their great and eternal credit, many of the primary leaders of the movement later repented for their error and the excesses of the movement.
There are many degrees and variations on this teaching.
At its most benign level, having a spiritual covering is used in a non-technical sense of relating to someone who looks out for, or cares for me. Certainly, the lack of genuine care for one another, is epidemic in the Church. Many people are in it for themselves. Finding an authentic Christian who genuinely cares for your welfare is a wonderful thing. Caring for one another and looking out for one another is as elemental to Christianity as chicken to the Colonel. The problem is twofold: 1) covering is not the term the Bible uses for mutual care (the misuse of terminology can get us in trouble), and 2) though benign in intent, it easily becomes malignant in expression.
The doctrine espouses that everyone needs a spiritual covering—someone to whom they are “accountable.” Allegedly, the divine order is: husbands cover wives, pastors cover their church, so-called apostles cover pastors (and other ministries submitted to them), and so on up the hierarchy. Within the ranks of the so-called New Apostolic Reformation, Dr. C. Peter Wagner honestly points out that the matter of so-called “apostle-to-apostle accountability” is not totally resolved.[ii] That is a kind way of putting it. The whole construct is a control-authority pyramid scheme scam (not to mention the damnable doctrine of “tithing up’: that a pastors tithe is allegedly due his/her “covering” apostle/superior, that the “tithe” flows up the hierarchy from level to level.
Authority can be an intoxicating brew. It is far easier to exercise it than yield to it or yield it to another. This is another reason why it is a mistake to define apostles and the apostolic movement primarily in terms of authority, rather than from a center of Calvary-consciousness and love. Great authority or “visionary leadership” do not distinguish apostles but rather their patience, power, love, and suffering.[iii] We will talk more about this in the next chapter.
Spiritual covering doctrine slides from, at best, a poor choice of words[iv] for benign care to damnable doctrine when it is: a) defined positionally in terms of hierarchy, position, and office, and b) when the one providing the alleged covering becomes a literal broker for divine blessing to flow or spiritual protection to be in place for an individual or church. Some believe that a spiritual covering is a power dimension, a literal spiritual force-field keeping “bad things” from happening to believers and releasing “good things” to the believer[v] It is alleged that individual believers and the Church corporately must be under the protective shield of an individual apostle’s covering.[vi]
The doctrine of spiritual covering needs to be rejected for the superstitious spiritual paranoia that it is. The power of the life of Christ is in participation with Him in His death and resurrection,[vii] not in the spiritual covering of an apostle or some other ministry official of rank. Whether or not we have relationship with others who can speak to and care for us is not the issue. We should. It is the implication of the idea that a person, any person, can take the place of Christ as the broker of spiritual blessing and safety. When maintenance of “governmental alignment” or “staying under covering” are contingent for the believer to allegedly receive divine blessing or to avoid divine judgment,[viii] we have embraced an anti-Christ spirit, regardless of how well intended our motives may be.
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[i] It was a major characteristic of the Discipleship Movement of the 1970s.
[ii] Wagner, Churchquake, p. 98.
[iii] 2 Corinthians 6, 4, 12:12, 15.
[iv] Terminology we can overlook but should likely change. I recommend not using it because of its contaminated implications.
[v] Alley, The Apostolic Revelation, p. 134
[vii] Philippians 3:10.
[viii] See Bevere, Under Cover, throughout the text.