THE DOCTRINE OF COVERING – What Does the Bible Say About it? By Mike Prah
In a number of denominations, the doctrine of “covering” is taught and accepted. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on this issue based on scriptural truth.
To begin with, we need to understand that the need to be “covered” by a perceived spiritual authority, and the scriptural instruction to submit ourselves to God’s delegated authorities (“accountability”) are NOT necessarily one and the same thing.
The teaching on “covering” goes like this. Everyone needs to be “covered” by someone who is spiritually his or her superior. This someone may be your cell group leader, the head of a church department or your senior pastor etc. In turn, these leaders receive covering from someone further up the line, for instance a denominational leader or a “recognized” Pastor, Apostle or Prophet. The necessity for this covering is based on the belief that believers need to be safeguarded or protected. So covering is provided by those who are more spiritual than we to protect us. At the top of this pyramid of covering there is quite often a well-known and recognized “name”.
It all sounds pretty reasonable except for one problem – the doctrine of covering is not found in the Bible. It is vital in examining this issue that we begin from a correct understanding of Biblical submission and Biblical authority.
“Now it happened on one of those days, as Jesus taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him and spoke to Him, saying, “Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave you this authority?” (Luke 20:1-2)
As we see from this portion of scripture, the question “who covers you?” is not new. The chief priests, scribes and elders were not simply asking Jesus where His supernatural power came from. More than that, they wanted a NAME. “Who is he?’ Come on, tell us Jesus, who is the scribe, who is the rabbi, who is the prophet who covers you? Jesus on a number of occasions had emphasized that His authority came from the Father. But their response was: “no more of that over-spiritualized talk about your Father”. We want the name of the person who is “covering” you or you are “sitting under”!
The apostle Paul confronted a similar problem in the Corinthian church.
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)
The Corinthians were apparently separating into factions according to whom they considered was the most authoritative teacher or “covering”. They were following after men, and for that reason Paul took issue with them. Further in his letter, Paul goes on to challenge them by describing this kind of mindset as carnal and fleshly rather than spiritual:
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
Finally, he instructs them:
“Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come–all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
The Corinthians had become so obsessed with the attributes of certain teachers they were idolizing them. They wanted to regard particular individuals as their “master”, “father”, or “teacher”, but Paul wanted them to understand that in doing so they were falling short of their full inheritance in Christ. He wanted them to see that all of these teachers, belonged to them as servant-ministers, and not the other way around. He asserts: “you are Christ’s”
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is OVER ALL and THROUGH ALL and IN ALL”. (Ephesians 4:3-6)
The scriptures plainly state that it is God alone who is OVER all. Only God can cover His people, and only the Holy Spirit can unite them.
In fact, the early church was taught to rely on the inner anointing to discern the spiritual source of potential ministers and workers of God. (1 John 2:20; 1 John 4:1), not who was their “covering”.
“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth” I John 2:20, NKJV
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1
Furthermore, New Testament authority as demonstrated by Jesus and the first Apostles, is “servanthood-authority” (that is upholding, strengthening, reinforcing and overseeing the Body from beneath) not “covering” from above.
The most disturbing aspect about the “covering” teaching is that it subtly encourages believers to look to men and women rather than develop their own deep relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. It upholds a man-made church built on hierarchy rather than a spiritual temple built through the unity of the Spirit. It promotes a class system of rulership by title, human appointment and personality, and devalues the spiritual position and priesthood of every believer, purchased for us by the precious blood of Jesus. It negates the leadership by the Holy Spirit and discourages believers from hearing the direction of the Spirit for themselves. It is not a biblical doctrine.
God cautions us,
“Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord, that take counsel, but not of me; and that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin” Isaiah 30:1, KJV
Jesus admonishes the Apostles and us,
“Don’t ever let anyone call you `Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are on the same level as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as `Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don’t let anyone call you `Master,’ for there is only one master, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. ” (Matthew 23:8-11, NLT)
The Lord is jealous over us. We were bought and paid for by His Blood, and His Name is the only Name by which we are to identify ourselves. When believers choose to find their identity in another name other than His, the Spirit is grieved .
One Scripture that some people point to as a basis for the “covering” doctrine is Hebrews 13:7.
“Obey your spiritual leaders and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they know they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.” (Hebrews 13:17, NLT)
The Greek word for “watch” in Hebrews 13:17 “agrupneo” is used 4 times in the bible. And in every verse it refers to prayer (Mark 13:33, Luke 21:36, Ephesians 6:18). One of the duties of spiritual leaders is to pray for God’s children that He has placed in their care.
“So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 43 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else.” (Mark 10:42-44, NLT)
Kingdom authority has nothing to do with titles, positions, educational qualifications or reputation. Kingdom authority is granted by the Lord according to the measure with which He can trust us to wield it with service and humility. The greatest authority in the kingdom is reserved for His bond slaves.
Sadly, what we see today in some churches, is a jockeying for position under the supposedly protective umbrella of some ministry name or reputation, in order to prove ourselves “covered”. “Who covers you?” has become one of the most frequently asked questions among Christians, and too often it is the deciding factor in assessing a ministry or a person’s anointing or otherwise.
In essence, judging each other’s worth and relationship with God on this issue of covering, and using it to justify self-righteousness and spiritual elitism is not biblical.
On the contrary, Christian submission and accountability is biblical and necessary.
WHAT ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY?
In today’s church system we have confused the word “covering” with the need for accountability. Accountability is urged and needed. Because our ability to deceive ourselves is virtually boundless; that is why accountability is so necessary. Without submitting to the counsel of others, we can rationalize almost anything, especially if what we’re doing involves a series of small compromises. Thus, accountability is needed not so much to protect us from others, but to protect us from ourselves.
God told the prophet Jeremiah,
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Our ability to embed ourselves within the impenetrable shell of rationalization, projection and denial is nothing short of amazing.
Paul was able to correct the Corinthians because he had true relationship with them. He had travailed over them, nurtured them, wept for them and rejoiced with them. Therefore he was able to reprove them, for their edification and not for their destruction. (2 Corinthians 13:10)
Who Shepherds the Shepherds?
A leader needs to hold his or her followers accountable for their actions. But who holds the leader accountable? His or her peers. Peter was a leader in the early church, but he called his fellow “shepherds of God’s flock” to be accountable to one another and to God:
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.’ (1 Peter 5:1-4)
Peter gave these leaders some necessary counsel. He said, “As you shepherd God’s flock, remember that you, too, have a Shepherd.” Secondly, the Bible urges accountability. Each person (leader and believers alike) need other good people with whom they can be honest and accountable (Ephesians 4:25; James 5:16).
As the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges, the late Chuck Colson learned the need for accountability the hard way. As the founder and chairman of the board of Prison Fellowship ministries, he met regularly with a small group of men. At their meetings, they would ask each other the following seven questions:. This is great discussion points for any leader or believer to hold themselves accountable to another believer or leader.
- Have you been with a woman anywhere this past week that might be seen as compromising?
- Have any of your financial dealings lacked integrity
- Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?
- Have you spent adequate time in Bible study and prayer?
- Have you given priority time to your family?
- Have you fulfilled the mandates of your calling?
- Have you just lied to me?
No leader or believer is ultimately free from responsibility. And no leader or believer is immune to getting off course. All people are accountable to God, and all people need a group of peers who can help them stay on course until Christ returns.
What then, DO the scriptures teach about how believers, as members of the corporate Body of Christ, are to relate to one another?
“… all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
In practical terms every leader and believer should adopt the following accountability disciplines, at a minimum.
- My first level of submission is to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.
- My second level of submission is to my Pastor the under-Shepherd, God has given for my growth and development as a disciple. (For a lead Pastor, this level of submission will be to your Trustees and Outside Accountability Overseers)
- My third level of submission is to the leadership of the specific ministries that has been established to give order to the Church at my local house of worship. The authority of the trusted men and women must be respected in the same manner as the Pastor.
- My fourth level of submission is to the congregation at large, of whom I have been called to serve alongside and love.
- And finally your fifth level of submission is to yourself.
Here is the nature of the relationship we must have with each other through the Holy Spirit; “ALL of you be submissive to one another, ALL of you be clothed with humility.”
Each of us is to be accountable to one another, whatever our function in the Body, whether apostles, teachers, deacons or helpers. This is the church Christ is building.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, NIV
GOD IS OUR COVERING
“Then the LORD will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering.” ( Isaiah 4:5, NKJV)
“He will cover you with His feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.” Psalm 91:4, NLT
“The Lord himself watches over you! The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.” Psalm 121:5, NLT
“For I hold you by your right hand—I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” Isaiah 41:13, NLT
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never die, and no one can steal them out of My hand. My Father gave My sheep to Me. He is greater than all, and no person can steal My sheep out of my Father’s hand.” John10:27-29, NCV
Finally, let me leave you with these thoughts:
1) Who covered Philip when He went down to Samaria and started a revival? (The apostles heard about it and sent Peter and John down to check it out!) (Acts 8:4-8)
2) Who covered Philip when the angel of the Lord directed him to the Gaza desert? (Acts 8:26-40) (There’s no record of the Ethiopian eunuch asking him for his “covering” credentials!)
3) Who covered Ananias when he was sent to pray for Saul? (He went to pray for a known enemy of the church and didn’t even get permission!) (Acts 9:10-18)
4) Who covered Apollos when he taught boldly in the synagogue, even though he had not yet received the full gospel? (Acts 18:24-25)
5) And who covered Aquilla and Priscilla when they took Apollos under their wing to instruct him further? (Acts 18:26)
6) Who covered Agabus when he travelled down from Judea to deliver a prophetic word to Paul? (Acts 21:10)
The answer is the same in each instance: The Holy Spirit covered, protected, led, and enabled. He is the only covering we need. The real question is this: is He the only covering we want?
To say that we are “covered” by a person who we may briefly rub shoulders with once a “week”, or perhaps once or twice a year or we may talk to once a while, is not sound biblical doctrine. True accountability is about how we express Christ in us – our lifestyle, our character and our integrity in our families, jobs and church community – before Almighty God. We are also encouraged to have accountability partners. Each one of us need to seek out and submit ourselves to those in the Church Body the Lord has placed close to us to provide that accountability. We must be transparent with them and they to us. Each one of us need to be willing, in humility and service, to provide that same accountability base for others in the Church. This applies to leadership equally as it does to the newest, most inexperienced member of the Christian church.
May the Lord add His blessing and further insights to His word.