The major proponents of the “covering” doctrine in modern times mostly trace their roots back to Watchman Nee’s book “Spiritual Authority.” While Nee was a neat and insightful writer, we should keep in mind that the second generation became a cult under his disciple Witness Lee so there must have been some error mixed in there! The Shepherding Movement was the first major group to take up the teaching, but even with the failure of the movement in the 1980’s, it keeps a life of its own. John Bevere’s book Under Cover is the most recent and popular restatement of covering theology. And all throughout the Charismatic church this kind of mentality lurks around.
When you are in a group that teaches submission and authority or “covering”, the Scriptural support seems overwhelming throughout the Bible. First there is the shocking instance of Korah’s Rebellion in Numbers 16 ends with the Earth opening up and swallowing them alive! Miriam and Aaron rebel against Moses authority and Miriam is struck with leprosy. David refuses to “touch the Lord’s anointed” in his long trials with Saul, and the Scripture is hard on Absalom who rebels against his father. The teaching follows that we need to treat unjust authority like Saul in the same way that David did. We want to be Davids not Absaloms right?
Jesus himself says that “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” He praises the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:9-10 after he says “For I too am a man under authority.” The logic goes that if Jesus was submitted to leadership, how much more should we be submitted to leadership?
Then in Paul we find that “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.” and that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God.” Our pastors are authorities set up by God, and so if we resist them, we are resisting God himself. And finally looking in to 1 Cor 11, we find a hierarchy setup: “the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” You need to get into line with the submitted order of the universe. God is a God of order after all right? Finally in Hebrews 13:17 we get a direct command “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls”
These are just some of the explicit examples. Once you take up the authority worldview, you will find it throughout the Scripture. The foibles of the Patriarchs for example can be explained in terms of their relationship to authority. This teaching must be true then right? Those who teach this doctrine are correct in identifying a Scriptural pattern of authority and order. Both the interpretation and application of this pattern are wrong, however.
First of all, the Bible does not teach unquestioning obedience to leaders. In fact, the Bible is full of examples of God calling his people to confront unrighteous leadership. Jesus is the foremost. He was basically put to death for his confrontation with the Pharisees. They were the duly established authority of the time. He called them “snakes”, “hypocrites” and a “brood of vipers.” Essentially he was confronting authorities which were in disobedience to God, to re-establish God’s proper authority over all. If Jesus is our example in this as in everything else we should be ready to have a show down with authorities that are in disobedience to God. The apostles took this to heart. In Acts 4:19 and 5:29 when ordered by the duly establish authority to obey, they say “We must obey God rather than men.” There could hardly be a clearer Scriptural precedent. If someone is telling you to do something that you believe is wrong, do not do it!
The Old Testament examples are misconstrued as well. Moses was ruling a theocratic Kingdom, speaking to God face to face, and receiving the Ten Commandments. Which of your leaders do you think possesses the same kind of authority as Moses did? David’s refusal to kill Saul does not detract from the fact that he was not submitting to or obeying Saul. He fled from Saul. In fact, he makes one of his famous statement “I will not touch the Lord’s anointed” statements when Saul finds him in a cave where he had run to. Had he submitted to Saul completely, there would have been no King David, because Saul would have succeeded in killing him. And what about the other examples? Jehu is anointed by God to wipe out the ruling dynasty. So are basically all of the judges.
Finally, let’s look at the only Scripture in the New Testament which really talks about “covering” in an explicit way: 1 Corinthians 11. The hierarchy that is setup there, far from supporting submission relationships is one of the strongest statements against it. In verse 7 it says that “a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God” If we really believe that this passage is about a hierarchy of personal submission, which is questionable, then this passage is teaching that the man should not submit to other men, because the “head of man is Christ.”
What is the author of Hebrews really teaching us when he tells us to “obey your leaders and submit to them,” then? The elders of Christ’s church are the defenders of the flock. They are set in place to defend us, and they take many blows from the enemy in their effort to protect us. Becoming an elder means you are willing to take this heavy responsibility on. We must respect their God-given authority to run the church. If you are not an elder in the church, then it is not your job to lead the church. If you start leading the church without authority to do so, you are in rebellion. This is far different from saying that elders have the right to tell you what you must believe, or what you must do. They have the right to lead the church, and if you participate in that church, you have the responsibility to follow their leadership. If you can not follow, then you can find another church. Most churches that teach “covering” however will try to make you feel as bad as possible for leaving, and usually do not have real elders, just one powerful leader and people that derive their authority from him. In this way they are dangerously similar to cults. Unhealthy church leadership always extends beyond the church and into your private life. By praising you when you do or believe what they say, and condemning you when you do not, they exert authority that they have not been given. It is your responsibility to take back the authority that God gave you over your own life. Anyone who tries to rule your conscience but you is out of line!
Because of the hierarchical worldview of these leaders, they will see anything that is not submitted to their system as being in rebellion. Whether it is another church, a para-church group, or just an individual. If they are not in a hierarchy of submission, then they are not “under cover.” Do not let this keep you from obeying God. Just like every system set up by the enemy, it gains its power from fear and intimidation. If they can scare you into thinking you are in rebellion then you will stay regardless of what kind of terrible things happen to you. Eventually you will either start to behave the way they want you to, or you will become a wreck.